Babe Ruth were a hot ticket in the early 1970s with their intelligent and sophisticated sound, the use of horns and the earthy yet powerful vocals of Janita “Jenny” Haan trading her lines against the impressive Alan Shacklock’s skilled guitar and arrangement. Their music was in part influenced by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, which made for an early ethnicity to their sound.
Their debut album, ‘First Base’, featured a striking cover designed by Roger Dean that enabled it to stand out in the racks. What a statement of intent it was from opening bars of Wells Fargo, that sound just hits you like a tank but it is not all bombast, it is is an album full of intricacies, especially with the wonderful arrangements from the classically trained Alan Shacklock, this is a different type of progressive rock and one that certainly makes an impression.
There are a lot of keyboards within the sound, all backed by the solid beat of Dick Powell. This is best displayed on the lengthy instrumental King Kong which is a fabulous jazzy rock number that would not feel out of place on an early Santana album. It is actually a cover of the Frank Zappa song from his 1968 ‘Uncle Meat’ album. Black Dog is a different type of song being soft and gentle with a delicate vocal from Jenny. Originally by Jesse Winchester, this has a fabulous piano solo from Dave Punshon. The Mexican is next and is the longest song on the album thus far and opens with Spanish guitar and a steady straightforward beat which was done in one take. It is really impressive for its time, well before drum loops and such. The song is about the Alamo but is told from the Mexican perspective, it also includes part of Ennio Morricone’s Western themes, which are neatly worked into the track. There’s great syncopation throughout the entire track and some great bass lines. The final song is Joker which has a brutal riff to it and more impassioned vocals from Jenny Haan. It rounds the album out in style although there are two bonus tracks plus a single edit of Wells Fargo and the theme from A Few Dollars More.
This concluded a fine album and gets you set up for their second album ‘Amar Caballero’ which carries with on the strong vibe of ‘First Base’, although this time the cover (a gatefold) is by Hypgnosis and features a group of horses that were supposed to charge but refused to move. In addition the line up has changed too, with Ed Spevock on drums, Dave Hewitt on bass and Chris Holmes replacing Dave Pushon on keys.
The sound and style of the album is different from the debut in that there are a slew of songs from Jenny, delicate guitar from Alan and an effective use of orchestrations throughout the album. However, there is still plenty of rocking going on, especially on the epic three parts of Amar Caballero with its Latin sounds. There are also elements of funk on the drums along with a suitably fiery guitar and horns wailing away. Much of this material was originally penned with other artists in mind but, when that failed to work out, this album arose from those efforts, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag but the 3-part Amar Caballero is definitely worth a listen.
The final album ‘Babe Ruth’ was their last for Harvest, although they spent a while on the Capitol label where they released the ‘Stealing Home’ and ‘Kid’s Stuff’ albums, albeit with a vastly different line up as all the original members had quit by this stage.
The album opens with the hard rocking track Dancer with great guitar by Alan Shacklock, this is followed by another rocker, Somebody’s Nobody, with more great guitar and synth sounds, again Jenny sings very powerfully, as she does throughout the whole album. An interesting version of A Fistful Of Dollars comes next, where Alan gets to play his own tribute to those spaghetti westerns of which he is so fond.
We then get a cover of a Curtis Mayfield song, We People Darker Than Blue, an unusual choice but it gets the proper Babe Ruth treatment with lots of energy and great synths. As a social protest song, it is overseen sympathetically and treated with respect, with a fine vocal from Jenny. Jack O’Lantern has very Rock and Roll feel with lots of honky tonk piano runs. The song is about a voyeur and, while it may not be welcome today, for its time, it was musically at least, a good track.
Another cover follows, this time of Booker T Jones‘ and William Bells‘ Private Number, which is a great song with lots of good synth work in amongst some fine guitar playing. Turquoise is driven by Spanish guitar runs and fills, a very flamenco style track with excellent guitar lines from Alan. The last track on the album is The Duchess Of Orleans and, again, this has a great vocal from Jenny Haan, it is also the second longest track on the album after Dancer. The song is about a relationship across the classes, opening with organ and Alan’s Cockney accent before Jenny takes the vocal over. It’s an interesting track and closes the album out well in what has been an excellent overview of the band and, indeed, their Harvest years, in which we find much skill and talent that was sadly unappreciated at the time. Upon re-examination some 50 years on we can see just how good this band really were and how they deserved so much more than they achieved.
This is a really good box set as usual from Esoteric and includes an informative booklet from the great Steve Pilkington, no less, I highly recommend it!
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