ALICE COOPER – Pretties For You

With the release of ‘Killer’ in 1971, Alice Cooper – the band, as they were then and not just the man – had perfected a blend of hard rock, art rock and glam. Tracks like ‘Under My Wheels’ had – and continue to have – a destructive brilliance, while even the more throwaway material like ‘You Drive Me Nervous’ provided a great, rough hewn alternative to the closest British equivalent in the Sweet. Somewhere between, the dark artistry of ‘Halo of Flies’ and ‘Dead Babies’ transpired the horror schlock of the band’s notorious live show into the kind of audio nightmares that irked America’s moral guardians.

Perfection doesn’t come over night of course, and it had taken the band three albums to really hit their stride. Their 1969 debut ‘Pretties For You’ – aside from one obvious exception – bears absolutely no resemblance to their not too distant hit making future. The Alice Cooper of the late 60s were a chaotic art band and most of the music that filled their debut (released on Frank Zappa’s Straight Records in the summer of that year) is certainly closer to Mothers of Invention than the glam/proto-metal that would gain them worldwide acclaim.

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Grapefruit Records pre-Xmas sale! Lots of psych and quirky 60s music at knock-down prices!

As part of Cherry Red’s pre-Xmas sale extravaganza, Grapefruit Records (their psychedelic arm) are offering various anthologies and box sets at knock-down prices for a strictly limited time.

This is a golden opportunity for those who love the nooks and crannies of British psych and pop-sike to explore various semi recent releases at bargain prices.

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VARIOUS ARTISTS – Come Join My Orchestra: The British Baroque Pop Sound 1967-73

Between 2016-2018, Grapefruit Records released three excellent box sets exploring the nooks and crannies of the British psychedelia movement. The three anthologies featured in excess of over two hundred tracks and even included items which even the more devoted psych obsessive hadn’t heard before. Having almost exhausted that particular avenue, the same label’s ‘Come Join My Orchestra: The British Baroque Pop Sound 1967-73′ from November 2018 provides an interesting side-step. In the wake of numbers like The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘For No One’ and the Stones’ ‘Lady Jane’, baroque pop became in vogue and all manner of artists – obscure or otherwise – turned to applying strings and flutes a-plenty. Not quite straight pop, but never as ostentatious as prog rock would make the orchestra, the seven year stretch bridging the two decades turned up all kinds of treats. While often favouring the singer songwriter over the pop bands, ‘Come Join My Orchestra’ is a great celebration of these sometimes forgotten musical experiments – and with seventy eight tracks ranging from the cult classic to genuinely obscure, there’s a lot here to take in.

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STATUS QUO – Picturesque Matchstickable Messages

In 1967, Britain was in the midst of a psychedelic musical revolution: The Beatles released an undeniable classic in ‘Sgt Pepper’, Steve Winwood’s Traffic released the rather more cult ‘Mr Fantasy’, while The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream fused a psychedelic spirit with blues influences on their respective albums, ‘Axis: Bold as Love’ and ‘Disreali Gears’. By 1968, the psychedelic vibe had started to fade slightly, although it was the year in which The Zombies released ‘Odessey and Oracle’, which despite poor sales at the time, is possibly the greatest piece of British psych-pop. In that same year, Status Quo released their debut, ‘Picturesque Matchstickable Messages’.

‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ may feel like a well worn classic now and familiar to everyone, but what of the rest of that debut album? The opening track ‘Veils of Melancholy’ sounds rather like ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ with the notes played in wrong order, which probably says a lot about why it bombed when released as a single. But, while ‘Matchstick Men’ feels like a piece of late-sixties happiness, ‘Veils’ has an effect that’s slightly sinister. ‘When My Mind Is Not Live’ typifies the psych-pop movement, feeling like a Traffic and Tomorrow hybrid. ‘Gentleman Joe’s Sidewalk Cafe’ is rather more whimsical. Written by songwriter-for-hire Kenny Young (erroneously credited on occasion to Bob Young, who’d later be a regular Quo collaborator), this Kinks-esque number was originally scheduled to be the single. Although a decent album track, I’m not so sure about its single potential – they made the right choice releasing it on the flip-side of ‘Matchstick Men’. ‘Paradise Flat’, takes the psych elements slightly farther, complete with deep voice-over on the mid section. It’s hard to tell whether the voice over always sounded bad, or whether time has been unkind.

It’s interesting to note that Francis Rossi doesn’t play such a pivotal role on a lot of these songs, as he would in later years. Although the heavily phased guitars are important to the end product, it’s the electric organ which seems to dominate the early Quo’s multi-layered sound (courtesy of Roy Lynes, who remained with the band until 1970). Surprising as it may seem, the well-loved title cut isn’t the best track, nor is it the most psychedelic. That honour falls to Alan Lancaster’s ‘Sunny Cellophane Skies’. Rossi’s heavily treated guitar is the track’s driving force, coupled by multi-layered vocals, which evoke the period.

The album is padded out with cover material, all of which is more in keeping with 60s beat pop than psychedelia. In the 21st Century, that makes for okay listening for anyone with a liking for stuff of that retro style, but I suspect that in 1968, some of it felt a little ordinary. ‘Ice In The Sun’ and ‘Elizabeth Dreams’ (both written by Marty Wilde) are probably the best of the bunch with regard to the said cover material, while the Quo’s treatment of The Lemon Pipers’‘Green Tambourine’ isn’t too bad either. The cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘Spicks and Specks’ is horribly misjudged – while Gibb, Gibb and Gibb would prove themselves to be at the forefront of the songwriting masterclass, this isn’t one of their better late 60s tunes as it is, and it definitely doesn’t suit Status Quo.

‘Picturesque Matchstickable Messages’ contains some enjoyable music during its 34 minutes, even if it isn’t quite as inventive as some other albums of the period. The following year’s ‘Spare Parts’ followed a similar musical path, but had little commercial success. By the end of the decade, the psychedelic times were over. If Status Quo had thrown in the towel, they’d likely be remembered as one of Britain’s greatest cult bands.

[In 2009, ‘Picturesque’ was re-issued as a 2CD Deluxe Edition, featuring both mono and stereo mixes of the album as well as non-album singles and BBC Sessions. Also included are rare recordings by the pre-Quo band, in both their Spectres and Traffic Jam guises].

January 2010