Review – Rare Bird: Beautiful Scarlet – The Recordings 1969-1975, 6CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

The Rare Bird story is both a cautionary tale and one full of missed opportunities and naivety, for this was a group who showed great talent and promise and yet let it all slip away somehow.

Rare Bird were the first act signed to the fledgling Charisma label that had been set up by Tony Stratton-Smith, who had become fed up with Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records (who his then charges The Nice were signed to). Because of his dissatisfaction he set up his own label to whom he signed Rare Bird, amongst others like Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Monty Python and Vivian Stanshall.

Rare Bird Released their eponymous debut album in 1969 and this yielded an unexpected hit single in the track Sympathy, which reached the top 30 in 1970 and was a hit in Holland, France, and Italy. This is possibly where the problems began as the group completely failed to capitalize on that success and proceeded to continue to trek around the UK circuit when, in fact, they should have been touring the continent.

The single also made inroads into the US Charts with the album being released through an ABC offshoot called Probe although, yet again, we find the band failing, or certainly being failed by their Record Company and Management who had not lined up any shows for them. They did manage to appear at the Agora Ballrooms in Chicago on a bill with Rare Earth, It’s a Beautiful Day and The Grateful Dead. This was a very well received gig, by all accounts but, sadly, further gigs did not materialize and they returned home disillusioned by their sole stateside excursion.

Their second album, ‘As Your Mind Flies By’, was a good album they were busy doing a lots of European TV performances and this reduced their time to work on the album and, as a result, it was rushed and not really as good as it could have been. It does, however, have a monster track in the form of Flight which lasts for 19 minutes (the whole of one side of the album), comprises of 4 Sections and allows lots of room for the keyboard players to really indulge and show their talents and what they could achieve as a band given the opportunity. Sadly the album did not really sell well enough and Charisma lost interest in the group and dropped them from the label. This was obviously a major blow for the band, with the upshot being that Graham Field (Keyboards) and Mark Ashton (Drums) both decided that enough was enough and quit the band.

This left Steve Gould in charge of the group and they changed their direction somewhat reeling back the progressive aspects significantly as most of that influence had come from Graham Fields really and his departure meant and allowed a new direction to emerge.

Graham Field got an offer from CBS and formed his own group Fields with Andrew McCullough and Alan Barry which met with limited success. A second album was recorded but was left unreleased in the CBS Vaults until 2015 when it got a release through Esoteric. Fields then split and Graham semi-retired and wrote TV music for many years.

Mark Ashton also had his own solo career under the name of Headstone and recorded two albums for Trident, with whom he was involved. Trident’s other act was Queen, and we all know what happened with them! Mark is now a painter who lives in the south of France and exhibits his works around the world.

This left Steve Gould and David Kaffinetti (keyboards) to soldier on, which they did successfully (after a fashion), signing to Polydor who released their next three albums, starting with ‘Epic Forest’ in 1972. This album was a lot softer in sound and style, with hints of the US west coast sound, although the title track is an epic song in itself and, in addition, the album was released with a 3 track, 33 RPM, single with the last track You’re Lost clocking in at ten minutes plus. The album is not prog per-se but is an interesting slice of early 1970’s rock with great bass playing from Paul Karas and some bite in the sound. By then Steve Gould had switched to 2nd guitar with lead guitar coming from Ced Curtis, who certainly tears it up on the album. Other songs were more subdued and reflective but with strong instrumentation, making them sound good.

Title track Epic Forest starts like Crosby, Still and Nash with harmonic vocals and acoustic guitars before getting louder and rockier with some strong rhythm guitar work and keyboard textures standing out as the pace picks up. There is a lengthy organ solo that is very pleasing and harks back to their earlier albums, although this has guitar interplay as well. There is a further instrumental section full ff guitars and this sounds terrific, really melodic and appealing. The song then moves into a piano part that is stately, subtle and atmospheric, before returning to the main part once again. This is really an effective and well-developed song by any standard and it certainly is a highlight of the album, as is You’re Lost which has a similar feel and tone to it, although this one has a fabulous ending sequence full of minor chord progressions along with some excellent guitar playing from Ced and Steve. This is fluid soloing and most agreeable to these ears. There then follows an extended keyboard section with guitars for the next six minutes, remarkably interesting and inventive, a bit of a minor prog rock classic really. It is highly possible that most folks will not have heard this excellent song and dexterous musical chops before now so I urge you to rectify that for yourself. This is simply magnificent music that deserves a far wider audience than it initially received.

The magic continued on their next album ‘Somebody’s Watching’, which gave the world a fine song in the form of the title track which opens with lush keyboards and a chunky guitar part, this time around they add a soulful sound to proceedings allowing Steve Gould to really show his voice to fine effect. The track combo of Dollars and A Few Dollars More is a real highlight of this excellent album, this time with John Wetton on bass. Opening with gentle piano, it literally gains pace with a surging guitar line from A Few Dollars More (the classic spaghetti western by Sergio Leone with music by Ennio Morricone) that the band re-interpret here again to fine effect, it really is an imaginative piece performed and realized very well.

The last album in the set is their final studio album ‘Born Again’, which is a bit of a misnomer as the band were on their last legs and about to throw in the towel due to their last set of demo’s with a full album’s worth of maerial, all with John Wetton on vocals, being dismissed. However the group soldiered on to record this one last album in 1974. This record took a far softer, American West Coast, sound even further and is a minor classic in its style and fabulous voice/keyboards interplay. The strongest tracks are Last Tango In Beulah, Redman and Live For Each Other. It really is a far more laid back album than the previous one but is still a fine closing chapter in the story.

The extra live disc is of interest as it was recorded at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane whilst supporting Barclay James Harvest and Rare Bird’s 8 song recording sees the light of day for the first time here and shows the group delivering a fine set of performances, especially on the versions of Last Tango and Dollars, both of which are the longer tracks on offer.

Rare Bird were, sadly, a very overlooked group and, as such, it is fabulous to have all their output gathered here with pristine sound, gatefold sleeves, worthy bonus tracks and a great, informative, booklet.

This is one fabulous package and I heartily recommend it to any who appreciates class music and great songs and performances.

From the booklet it seems that both Mark Ashton and Steve Gould still feel badly about how Tony Stratton-Smith and Charisma treated them, which is sad as Rare Bird certainly had the talent to make it big but sadly never quite got the breaks they needed to do so.

Released 30th April 2021

Order from Cherry Red here:

Rare Bird: Beautiful Scarlet – The Recordings 1969-1975, 6CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

One thought on “Review – Rare Bird: Beautiful Scarlet – The Recordings 1969-1975, 6CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith”

  1. As a Rare Bird fan, I have to say that I won’t be buying this box set, as Esoteric and El (both Cherry Red labels) have already put out the five studio albums on CD,and I have them all. The only disc that would interest me is the live set, and as Cherry Red will put that out as a standalone release in a couple of years’ time, I’m not going to spend at least £30 now just for that disc; better to wait for the ‘Rare Bird Live At Drury Lane’ CD. To me, this box set is a rip-off.

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