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.
Since the label’s launch in the late noughties, Grapefruit Records has worked tirelessly to bring top quality reissues to fans of cult 60s and 70s sounds. Thanks to their archive digging skills, previously unaffordable vinyl albums by Skip Bifferty and Picadilly Line were no longer an extortionately priced mystery; Jeff Lynne’s early years with The Idle Race were reappraised, and dark psych combo Zior reached the ears of many people for the first time.
For all of their well loved archive releases, it’s a trilogy of psych themed box sets featuring hits, misses and rarities from 1967 (‘Lets Go Down And Blow Our Minds’), 1968 (‘Looking At The Pictures In The Sky’) and 1969 (‘Try A Little Sunshine’) that best advertises the label’s eye and ear for great reissues. With that in mind, it seems only natural that the label would raid the archives of psychedelia’s peak years for their hundredth release, and ‘Think I’m Going Weird’ is Grapefruit’s biggest and most adventurous release to date. With over 120 tracks spread across five discs, a larger format book sharing a wealth of important historical detail and rare photographs (with no obvious overlap from the previous 60s psych sets) this British take on ‘Nuggets’ is something of a jewel in the label’s crown.
For many years, psych/prog band The Syn’s recorded output totalled a couple of rare 7” singles. Although much loved by collectors, these recordings remained elusive throughout the 80s and 90s, all too rarely spotted at record fairs or in second hand record shops. As an early vehicle for Yes men Chris Squire, the historical value of the discs was perhaps greater than their monetary value, but they often seemed shrouded in mystery to those who discovered Yes much later. Thankfully, Umbrello Records came to the rescue in the mid noughties when they reissued The Syn’s four original 7” sides along with other period rarities and other recordings, and even though their ‘Original Syn’ compilation was terribly titled and looked cheaply packaged, it would be an invaluable collection filler for those lucky enough to grab the limited edition release.
The 1960’s spawned a generation of guitarists who paved their way to stardom through vast amount of session work. Arguably the most celebrated of these players are Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page, but for these genuine megastars, there were a legion of other six string heroes who worked every bit as hard – or harder – but never reached “household name” status. Unless you’re the kind of fan who devours sleeve notes and credits with as much enthusiasm as the music itself, names like Clem Clempson, Geoff Whitehorn and Jim Sullivan, for example, might not be too familiar, and yet, if you love 60s, 70s and 80s rock, chances are you own a record or two featuring those guys.
Ray Fenwick is another musician who has maintained a presence for several decades, but has never seemed to get his full due. Beginning as a session man in the 60s, he’s played with some of the greats. ‘Playing Through The Changes’ – a three disc anthology from 2021 – shows off a chunk of his legacy more than admirably, pulling tracks from a very busy career. What it may lack in consistency it makes up for with variety, and unlike so many rock-based anthologies devoted to a singular talent, it doesn’t rely on too many really obvious recordings you’ll own elsewhere – purely because the nature of Fenwick’s work means there aren’t any obvious compilation filling hits and standards. There are a lot of oddities – which aren’t all good, naturally – but, in the main, it’s an enjoyable musical adventure.
Between a world of cancelled and postponed gigs and time spent in lockdown, 2020 has been a troubled year, but nevertheless, time marches on. Unbelievably, we’ve reached December and our traditional countdown to Christmas has begun.