Monday, 11 February 2013
The Best Of the two "Nuggets" psychedelia compilations (News, Views and Music 182 Top 10)
As regular readers will know, I regard the 1966-68 era as the pinnacle of civilisation. New genres were sprouting up every week, pop got deeper and rock got softer whilst I could gladly spend the rest of my life searching out the gems liberally sprinkled over tracks from those eras released by anybody and everybody. Luckily I don’t have to – record label Rhino have collected them together, first on a double album dedicated to UK released issued in 1972, which was expanded into a box set in 1998 and a follow up box set featuring bands from the rest of the world was released in 2001, all under the collective term ‘Nuggets’ (listed here as volumes I and II; unusually I think the sequel is even greater than the original and can’t wait for a volume III!) Not everything released on these sets deserves to be unearthed (some of it is truly awful) and a fair few of the tracks are ones you’ll know already if you’re a vaguely serious collector (including several AAA songs already included on our list). But the promise inherent on the songs by bands you probably won’t know collected on these discs is extraordinary, a sort of parallel universe of groups that deserved to be every bit as famous had record label problems/sales figures/band disintegrations not got in the way. Surely many of these groups with funny names from around the globe would have been AAA members too had they stayed together long enough to release a whole album. In truth there’s probably about 30 indispensible songs from these two box sets of around 200 songs (including some AAA-linked rarities by Graham Gouldmann and Kevin Godley under the moniker ‘The Mockingbirds’ long before they formed 10cc and the world’s first Stephen Stills cover when The Mojo Men covered the Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Sit Down, I Think I Love You’). However, for this list we’ll be looking at the non-AAA tracks, the recordings that open up the world to a brave new future, and a short synopsis on each band and what happened to these bands, listed in the order they appear on the box sets (if you listen to them in order – you don’t have to of course, this are two box sets made for rule-breaking!) Hold on to your heads, it’s going to be quite a psychedelic journey...
The Electric Prunes “I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night!” (Box Set Volume One Disc 1 Track 1)
The biggest hit on this list (making #11 in the US charts), the Electric Prunes’ second single is a tour de force of angst and aggression, switching between reflective verses and short snappy choruses. Professional songwriters Annette Tucker and Nancie Mantz came up with the song, inspired by a hangover caused by an emotional night-before. Figuring it would make for a good line the songwriters replaced the line ‘drink’ with ‘dream’, coming up with a scenario where a broken hearted narrator finds himself unable to face a world without his loved one. The Prunes, a Stones-like Los Angeles band who lasted until the end of the 60s before splitting, surpass themselves with the arrangement where the horrors of the night before are summed up by a squealing, squelching guitar part and a hypnotic backing track full of pattered drums and swirly, backwards guitar that makes the whole sound scary and surreal. Guitarist Ken Williams (sadly not the Hancock and Carry On star!) came up with the distinctive jagged guitar opening by accident, when he knocked his guitar while the ‘playback’ controls were set too high – when the band tried to re-create the sound they discovered it sounded even better backwards! Fittingly it’s probably the best known single here and certainly the best known song the Electric Prunes released, a note perfect performance full of subtlety and emotional torment; the only shame is that none of their other singles quite match the full frontal impact of this recording.
The Nazz “Open My Eyes” (Box Set Volume One Disc 1 Track 25)
Todd Rundgren’s first band (long before he found solo fame in the 1970s) released three records, most of which cost a fortune before being re-released by Rhino in the wake of the first Nuggets box set. The parts I’ve heard are all pretty interesting, but the best song by far is this explosive debut single from mid 1968, a mesmerising piece of studio trickery and psychedelia. Built on a catchy, hypnotic riff, not too far removed from the Small Faces, it features some remarkable ‘phasing’ on the vocals (a trick invented by The Beatles on ‘Sgt Peppers’ where the song is played back through a revolving speaker in a cabinet, giving it a woolly, feathery feel). Even without the effects, however, this would be a fabulous song: bouncy and pretty, with a fantastic reflective middle eight, a piercing guitar solo similar in feel to Justin Hayward’s work of the period and a marvellous fadeout that simply keeps on coming, getting more and more out of control by the end. The Nazz (named after a Yardbirds song, in turn named after a Lord Buckley comic monologue about a hip young Jesus in the 1960s from Nazz aka Nazareth), should have had a bright future in front of them but sadly their record label SGC didn’t quite know how to market them (the band had put together ‘artificially’ and were intended to be the new Monkees for the teenybopper market; like their predecessors the band had deeper and more adult things in mind judging from their music!) Alas the Nazz only really got the respect they deserved after the ‘Nuggets’ compilation (most fans correctly judge this song as one of the highlights of the first box set), although Rundgren’s solo success does soften the blow (ironically his biggest solo hit ‘Hello It’s Me’ is a re-recording of ‘Open My Eyes’ B-side, a song considering not up to the standard of the A side!)
The Creation “Making Time” (Box Set Volume Two Disc 1 Track 1)
We’ve been here before (The Creation were one of my ‘top 15 non-AAA groups’ covered in our top 10 in issue 170) but I’ll gladly go over old ground for one of my all-time favourite recordings. The Creation are, compared to most of this list, comparatively well known and loved (Alan McGee even named his record label ‘Creation’ in their honour, on which Oasis amongst others released records in the 1990s) but their eight original singles and two albums never quite fulfilled on the promise of this, their explosive debut single. Everything about this track is perfection: the lyrics decry the need to go over old ground, asking why so many bands cover ‘the same old song’; the melody is tied together by one of the greatest riffs ever made and the performance makes good on the promise to go somewhere new (the guitar solo is played with a violin bow, a scattershot noise of tension-releasing feedback timed to perfection and a noise that’s perfect for the summer of 1966 when this song was released). This single goes somewhere entirely new, whilst keeping the best of the ‘old’ sounds of Merseybeat and Kinks/Who/Stones style ‘heavy rock’ circa 1964 and 65. This sound should have been the future and indeed many a song released in the second half of 1966 owes a huge debt to it (‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Paint It Black’ to name but two). So why do we have to carry on always plugging this same old song? Because it’s a template for how truly wonderful and life-changing music can be when it’s played right, that’s why. This song was the perfect choice for kick-starting the second volume of ‘Nuggets’; unfortunately nothing else on the set – even the following songs – comes close to matching it.
Tomorrow “My White Bicycle” (Box Set Volume Two Disc 1 Track 5)
I hate bicycles in real life – if man was meant to balance on precarious bits of tubing and plastic he’d have been born with stabilisers – but few musical journeys are as rewarding as this one. Tomorrow was Keith West’s first band (soon to write his ‘Teenage Opera’) but hits an awful lot harder than any of his solo material. Where this song excels is in the clever way the drums (and to a lesser extent the guitar) sums up the bicycle, with its quick-stepping staccato rhythm, whilst the surrounding guitar effects and backwards cymbals sum up the mystical, other-worldly scenery rushing past. The lyrics are strong too, debating loneliness and isolation of people passed by on the journey and a touch of protest that’s pretty daring for May 1967 (this single’s release date): ‘Policeman shouts but I don’t see him, they’re one thing I don’t believe in!” Shockingly this original and best version of ‘My Wgite Bicycle’ never mind the charts, although a lesser version by Scottish band Nazareth (not the ‘Nazz’ discussed below) made #14 in the UK charts in 1972 and ‘Neil’ from ‘The Young Ones’ recorded a comedy version as his follow-up to ‘A Hole In My Shoe’ in the 1980s. Alas Tomorrow themselves only ever released two singles – the second, ‘Revolution’ (not yet collected on a ‘Nuggets’ set) is still pretty good but not up to this one.
The Eyes “When The Night Falls” (Box Set Volume Two Disc 1 Track 7)
Misery abounds on this song by three-hit wonders The Eyes, who seem to have been all but forgotten by everybody nowadays (the ‘Nuggets’ compilations revived interest in most of these bands, but sadly not them – the other Eyes singles/B-sides are very difficult to come by). Few songs make better use of feedback or the harmonica than this one, which features one of the heaviest, most claustrophobic atmospheres on record, the perfect musical metaphor for the simple lyrics about the narrator struggling to cope with isolation in the day – and going completely to pieces at night. The mouthorgan part, so small and tiny when set against the sheer noise of the guitar and drums, sounds like a futile, hopeless gesture of escapism, fighting its way against all the ‘walls’ put up by the song before becoming more and more hysterical and upset before a final howl of frustration and rage slams the song shut. Simple it may be, but few ‘sad’ songs are as effective as this forgotten classic at putting inner turmoil into music.
We All Go Together “It’s A Sin To Go Away” (Box Set Volume Two Disc 1 Track 25)
I’ve got it sorted for my next music quiz: if I’m ever asked to name a rock band from Peru then surely I win extra bonus points for coming up with this band. Pyshcedelia must have been pretty late spreading there, though, judging by the 1972 vintage of this song (a full five years after the summer of love); most retrospective psychedelia songs sound awful, made with then-modern technology and more like spoofs than the real thing; however this sweet little ballad could have held its own with any classic of the true flower power era. The keyboard and harmonies are delicate and light, perfect for the lovely tune that sounds a little like Procul Harum, while the tension in the song is built up by some heavy drumming, a cracking fuzz bass and some extraordinary swirling backwards guitar of which even Syd Barrett would have been proud. Despite being written and sung in a foreign language the hard-to-hear lyrics are lovely, too, commenting that it’s a ‘sin’ to go away from someone you love, even though sometimes you have to. A marvellous little nugget of gold that deserves to be better known, as indeed do the band – their only other ‘flirtation’ with fame came when they covered the Badfinger song ‘Carry On Till Tomorrow’.
Fleur De Lys “Circles” (Box Set Volume Two Disc 3 Track 3)
The only AAA song on this list, this is a rollicking psychedelic frenzy that builds on The Who’s 1965 original of a song originally relegated to B-side status. A British band from Southampton, Les Fleur De Lys included a young Pete Sears amongst its members (later the bassist/Keyboardist for Jefferson Starship from 1974-86) and were never the most stable of bands, going through more line-ups in their four years between 1965 and 69 than even Buffalo Springfield. Although most of their songs were self-penned, it made sense for them to cover one of Pete Townshend’s lesser known tracks (the band were produced for a time by Glyn Johns, engineer on the Who’s original and later the band’s producer in the early 70s). Their attack of ‘Circles’ is quite different though: the original is a pleasing quirky song with a catchy chorus, clearly in keeping with the ‘confusion’ lyrics of many period Who songs of the period where things are not how they seem on the surface (‘Substitute’ and ‘Disguises’ to mention two). The Fleur De Lys’ version – recorded about six months later – is a tour de force, however, a hazy crazy world where destruction seems imminent and the circles the narrator is led in seemingly much more important that just whether the guy will get together with his girl. The slightly later period means this version is a lot more psychedelic, with a shimmering, quicksilver guitar solo that reaches everywhere for about twice the length of most normal solos and is even more eccentric than Pete’s original, whilst the slight retro touches of The Who’s version (the retro surfing style harmonies) have been dispensed with altogether. The song even has a much better intro and outro too, even if one misses the sheer power and hollering of the Roger Daltrey’s original lead. Still, I’d spent years wishing the Who had spent a little more effort on this great song instead of rattling off in the end of their disenfranchised period with producer Shel Talmy and with this cover version I got my wish!
The Open Mind “Magic Potion” (Box Set Volume Two Disc 3 Track 11)
Unusually the Open Mind were about the only band on this list to release a bona fide album, but its so scarce even I’ve never got round to tracking down a copy (perhaps I need a magic potion to find it?) This London’s band’s classic single also comes surprisingly late for the psychedelic era in the Summer of 1969 when folk-rock and protest were all the rage, although all the hallmarks of the summer of love are in this song. Sounding like a sped-up amphetamine-induced version of The Searchers’ ‘Love Potion Number Nine’ the song sports a truly remarkable backing track with a powerful rhythm section criss-crossed by at least three guitar parts, each with their own distinctive sound and pushed to the maximum with oodles of reverb and feedback. Tough and dynamic, the song then features a floating, pulsating vocal on top (not that far removed from John McNally’s seeing as we’ve just been talking about The Searchers) that ends each line by zipping off into the echo-laden stratosphere in true psychedelic style. The guitar solo itself is fascinating too, one of the instruments suddenly channelling into an aggressive proto-heavy metal riff while the other two keep up the original tune. A true sound for sore ears that deserved to sell better, although arguably it was a single a bit out of synch with the times.
The Missing Links “You’re Driving Me Insane!” (Box Set Two Disc 3 Track 12)
The general feedback from ‘Nuggets’ fans is that this song was one of the weaker choices – but surely that many people can’t have missed what a great inventive song this is? The Missing Links (an Australian band and sadly not connected with Micky Dolenz’s pre-Monkees band of the same name) were an explosive mixture of The Who and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, with the heaviest sound around. Everything about this song is pushed to the limit: the hypnotic riff is unrelenting(only a smidgeon around from The Beatles’ ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’), the singing is just the right side of off-key, the squeaking morsecode keyboards sounds like a message of doom and above it all Doug Ford’s guitar an absolute howl of feedback and aggression. From the title this could have gone two ways: a novelty song about falling in love or an absolute terrifying world of noise and mayhem caused by the narrator’s topsy-turvy feelings to his beloved. In case you hadn’t guessed, this is the latter, as on the edge of sanity as any of Syd Barrett’s classics. The sound is wonderfully raw, even with all the psychedelic touches and is clearly sung live (vocalist Andy Anderson even pleads with the engineer at one stage ‘the guitar’s too low – turn it up!’ just as his compatriot suddenly squelches into his cascading squeal of fury and feedback). Sadly the band don’t use their on-stage technique of the time on the record though (the drummer playing the drums with his head while he rang from the rafters, something even Keith Moon didn’t do!) This song from August 1965 is ridiculously ahead of its times (perhaps a little too much considering the contemporary singles are still ‘Ticket To Ride’ and ‘Satisfaction’ – this song is closer to ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘Paint It Black’) and really deserves to be better known, packing such a punch it will leave you truly drained by the end if you’ve listened to it right. Sadly the band called it a day after poor sales just a year after this mesmerising single. A true nugget indeed.
Dantalion’s Chariot “Madman Running Through The Fields” (Box Set Two Disc 4 Track 3)
Dantalion’s Chariot (no, that’s not a mis-spelling!) only ever released this one single but oh what a career they could have had! A psychedelic epic as great as any the bigger names ever made, it features a lovely simple melody and a verse where the narrator finds his life gradually going out of control before a slam across the drums and a sonically perfect onslaught of feedback pull the rug out from under our feet time after time. The line-up of this power trio is incredible too: The vocalist of this British band is Zoot Money (long before he became famous in his own right) and this is surely his best performance: full of empathy, grit and power while the fadeout with the ‘madman’ getting out of breath as the horrors of life try to catch up with him only for the song to end in a squall of feedback is perfectly timed. In Zoot’s words: "Madman was a description of our personal experiences, and the subsequent self-revelations brought about by hallucinogenics... The verse is the voice of the taker, the one who's dropped the acid, and the chorus is him being observed by a second party - "Isn't that the madman running through the fields?" A puzzled onlooker - much like the audiences at the time. Even more amazingly that awe-inspiring perfectly controlled feedback-fused guitar part is the recording debut of – Andy Summers from The Police! (What a let down working on drippy Sting’s drippy songs must have been after this...) The drummer, meanwhile, was Colin Allen, better known for his work with Stone The Crows and, to AAA fans, for being the writing partner of Jimmy McCulluch during his short time with Wings (on the songs ‘Medicine Jar’ and ‘Wino Junko’). Eric Burdon was a big fan of this song too, covering it with The New Animals, although Dantelion’s Chariot is still the best. The band split in 1968 after poor sales and record Columbia’s surprisingly reluctance to embrace the band’s psychedelic sound.
Groovy man! That’s all for now, we’ll see you next week (if your head is back on your shoulders by then...)