19 January 2020

Vigrass & Osborne - Men Of Learning/ Forever Autumn

A Lego advert with some lyrics put to it, or "War of the Worlds"?

Label: Uni
Year of Release: 1972

As someone who hasn't necessarily been a keen student of all things Jeff Wayne, it took blogger (and ex-Green and ex-London Assembly politician) Darren Johnson to bring this one to my attention. 

Vigrass & Osborne were a slightly folky harmony pop duo who came under Jeff Wayne's charge for one LP in 1972. Gary Osborne had previously been a member of the UK (rather than US) Chocolate Watch Band who issued two singles on Decca in 1967, one of them being the highly sought-after "Requiem". Paul Vigrass, on the other hand, had served time as a solo artist on RCA as well as briefly delivering lead vocals for a post-Tony Burrows line-up of Edison Lighthouse.

Their debut album "Queues" was a collaborative effort with Wayne, with him providing the music and the duo providing lyrics for all the tracks. Despite being a contemplative and highly melodic album, it didn't achieve a lot of attention at the time, and despite occasional reissues around the world appears to have drifted off-catalogue once again.

That's surprising when you consider that one of the key tracks from Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds" project was already hiding away both on the LP, and on the B-side to the second single from it. "Forever Autumn" is, in this guise, slightly choppier and breezier than the eventual Justin Hayward version, clipping along like a song whisked through a gale, which was surely the intention. Droning synths and fluttering flutes rush past the song's post-romance angst, and for me, it's actually a more effective and evocative version, appropriately summing up the turmoil and confusion of a relationship's end. There again, it was the first version, and therefore had every right to be better.

15 January 2020

Fuzz Face - Mighty Quinn/ Voices From The Sky

"Groovy" sitar and organ instro version of the Dylan/ Manfred classic

Label: Page One
Year of Release: 1968

Anything I write about the progression of "Mighty Quinn (Quinn The Eskimo)" from a "Great White Wonder" Dylan bootleg track to a major hit for Manfed Mann is probably going to be a bit of a waste of energy - everyone knows the story, after all. Dylan's songbook was continually plundered throughout the late sixties (and indeed beyond) by bands desperate for both cred and hits, and the adventures of Quinn the Eskimo were possibly the poppiest of options on offer, as well as handily buried on an unofficial release.

While Manfred Mann had shot to number one with their version of the track by February 1968, Fuzz Face here - who I'm 99.9% confident were some sort of American studio group - were latecomers to the party, issuing their version in April of that year. In fairness, it puts a slightly different spin on things, loading an instrumental version of the track with guitar effects, sitars, organs and decidedly "groovy" backing rhythms, making it prime fodder for anyone's house party. You can dance to this with much greater ease than the Mann's rather stompier take. 

Commercially, though, there wasn't much room in the charts for two versions of the same song at roughly the same time, and this sank on both sides of the pond. A shame, but it wasn't at all unusual for instrumental versions of pop hits to do this, however innovative or otherwise faintly psychedelic they were.

12 January 2020

Reupload - Trevor Burton - Fight For My Country/ Janie Slow Down

Utterly marvellous anthemic electro-psych glam from ex-Move man

Label: Wizard
Year of Release: 1971/72

After Trevor Burton left The Move, he had huge plans for his future. Not for him the usual course of putting an advert in Melody Maker for musicians and waiting for the results - on the contrary, he wanted to tap into the much in-vogue (at the time) practice of forming a supergroup of respected and talented musicians.

The ridiculously named Balls were born, consisting of Brummie wunderkinds like Steve Gibbons of The Uglys, Richard Tandy (later of ELO), and Denny Laine from The Moody Blues. In truth, the formation of the group was muddy, complicated and fraught with difficulties and intense arguments. A revolving doors policy appeared to be in operation, and describing the personnel coherently here would be a task and a half. If you're really interested, the excellent Brum Beat website has patched together a very patient and detailed overview of their history here.

During the chaos of rehearsals and recording, it would seem that only one usable piece of work emerged, and that was this single, which consisted of Burton, Steve Gibbons and Denny Laine. Originally released under the group's name Balls in January 1971, it failed to sell, and was subsequently reissued as an edited version in 1972 under Trevor Burton's name. That also flopped, and the track was then reissued again on Birds Nest Records in 1975 under the name B L and G (with the track retitled as "Live In The Mountains"), where it also did precisely nothing. After that point, clearly everyone involved simply gave up.

I suspect the single's sales chances were harmed by the fact that it only appeared an entire year after Balls ceased to exist, but it's not hard to hear why many people felt the track had enormous potential. Strident, cocksure, anthemic and unusual, the buzzing analogue synths spin throughout the track like helicopter rotary blades while Burton and the boys build a naive but relatable anti-military message over the top. "Why don't we all go and live in the mountains?" Burton roars, and far from being the usual pile of old hoary supergroup mush, this actually sounds like psychedelic Brum beat crossed with early electronica and glam - a squidgy, messy soup of ideas taking place on the cusp of two decades which shouldn't really work, but does so brilliantly. I'd be willing to bet that at least one member of the Super Furry Animals likes this one...

8 January 2020

Variation - Snowbird/ Nebula

Phil Cordell's attempt to repeat his Springwater success

Label: Warner Bros
Year of Release: 1973

One of the big surprise hits of 1971 was Springwater's "I Will Return", a guitar instrumental released when the charts weren't exactly chock full of them. The days of the music press having a "Best Instrumental Group" category in their reader's polls had long passed, and the idea of a group having a lead guitarist out front, not singing but Hank Marvinning to his heart's content, was passé to say the least. Springwater, however, bucked the trend and reached the top five in November of that year after a slow trudge up the charts.

Springwater were somewhat different to the usual format in that all the instruments on their recordings were played by one man, Phil Cordell. It proved to be a complete one-off success, though, and other singles released by "them" - including a somewhat unexpected cover of "Jerusalem" - flopped. Given that, it's a slight surprise to find this was also written, recorded and released by Phil Cordell in 1972, only under the name Variation. Issued in January 1973 mere moments after the Springwater name had been abandoned, it doesn't really offer any progression on the formula and is really just more of the same; quite haunting, very strongly performed and subtle, but unlikely to change his fortunes. The public were clearly not interested in more of the same. 

The flipside here is more interesting, being a church organ led piece of minimalism which sounds almost post-rock in its ambitions - slow, atmospheric and lingering like a low, druggy mist. It's possible that if Cordell had written more material of this ilk and sprawled it across an LP, he may have an underground hit of sorts.

5 January 2020

The Silvers - Where Has Love Gone/ She's My Woman

Obscure Johnny Hawkins produced baroque pop trio, lost to time

Label: CBS
Year of Release: 1968

The Silvers were one of the more luckless but persistent pop groups of the mid to late sixties, issuing three 45s which sold so poorly that copies are pure bitches to find (if you'll pardon the language this early on in 2020). Their 1966 Polydor debut "What A Way To Start The Day" (b/w "Blue Blue Eyes") is barely ever seen in record racks, and their follow-up on the same label, "The Trouble" (b/w "Almost In Love") managed to chart inside Radio London's payola-driven Top 40 in 1967, but turns up for sale just as infrequently.

Less obscure, but still not exactly cramming the record racks of Music and Video Exchange, is their final single - this time on CBS - "Where Has Love Gone". If it's anything to go by, it suggests that their earlier records might be worth checking out. The A-side is carefully arranged solemn, wintery baroque pop which gets prettier and more entrancing with each play. The group's vocal harmonies are fantastic and do much to complement Hawkins' careful orchestral arrangements. By January 1968 it might have seemed slightly dated and probably not sufficiently catchy or upbeat for radio, which is a pity. 

The flip is uncharacteristically popsike in its stylings too, beginning with what sounds like the master tape being reactivated after an unexpected power cut, before getting all groovy on our asses. It's careful and a little bit buttoned-up, but it nonetheless shows the group could let their hair down when required.