The box sets released by Grapefruit Records covering the second half of the 60s managed to bring together a lot of interesting material under the loose umbrella of psychedelia. The four box sets – featuring music from 1966-69 respectively – also took in bits of pop, freakbeat and folk, but with so many phased guitars, recurring themes of teatime and other whimsy dictated by a general soft drugs haze, they often felt like coherent packages. Once the yearly exploriations move the into the 70s, there isn’t quite such a focus; with the first wave of psychedelia in its death throes, as well the rise of hard rock and singer-songwriters, the early 70s paint from much broader musical palate.
A stylistic indecision hasn’t stopped Grapefruit from digging deep and turning up loads of interesting things to fill ‘Peephole In My Brain: The British Progressive Pop sounds of 1971’, of course, and its three discs are brimming with obscurities, flop singles, half remembered gems and deep album cuts. With the vaults of Harvest, Vertigo, Ember and various other labels truly raided, it’s a set that’s quite quirky in its own way – and a reminder that there was far more going on at the time than the Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Yes and Tull-loving rock historians would have you believe.
Long before joining Roy Wood and Bev Bevan in The Move, a young hopeful named Jeff Lynne became a member of a Midlands beat group named The Nightriders. Soon after Lynne’s arrival, The Nightriders mutated into The Idle Race, a move reflecting a gradual shift from 60s beat group sounds to the burgeoning psychedelic scene. Despite releasing two albums and a handful of singles, The Idle Race failed to make much of a commercial impact in the 60s, but due to Jeff’s later megastar status as the leader of Electric Light Orchestra and part time Wilbury, their work has built a cult following.
1966 was very much a turning point for pop music. Many acts that were considered beat groups had started to branch out and to think beyond live performance. With orchestral tracks like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘For No One’ Paul McCartney pushed forth the idea of baroque pop. John Lennon, meanwhile, was experimenting with tape loops and early forms of electronica. His ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, closing The Beatles’ 1966 masterpiece ‘Revolver’, is often considered to be at least partially responsible for the birth of true psychedelia. While it’s obvious Lennon’s sound collage took a massive leap towards the mind expanding sounds of ’67, many other bands were sowing the seeds for change a little earlier. As early as 1965, The Kinks pushed boundaries with their single ‘See My Friends’ – a mix of jangling sixties pop and raga music – while even the Dave Clarke Five had occasionally sounded a bit…out there for the era with an increased use of reverb. While the roots of psychedelia could be argued over almost indefinitely, The Yardbirds’ ‘Shapes of Things’ – a fuzzy mish-mash of beat-pop and soft druggy haze – pre-dates the release of ‘Revolver’ by several months and is very much in the mould that would come to be known as freakbeat. An important branch of the psychedelia family tree, freakbeat took the bones of the sixties sound, loaded it with fuzz and wasn’t shy in exploiting the left/right split for stereo head trips. In 1966, this was very much at the forefront of emerging alternative sounds.
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.