Review – Strangeways: Complete Recordings Volume 1 – 1984-1995 – by John Wenlock-Smith

The worlds of Prog and AOR often meet and this fine set from HNE/Cherry Red can certainly attest to that, comprising, as it does, the complete recorded output of UK rockers Strangeways and those with US vocalist Terry Brock who replaced original singer Tony Liddell in 1987.

Strangeways were, at the time, championed by the likes of Kerrang and Raw as being rivals to mega US bands like Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon, with their 1985 debut ‘Strangeways’ coming highly commended in that arena. However, as is often the case, the hype was not realised, in part because Strangeways’ record label, Bonaire, were not up to the case and lacked the promotional push to get the album across to the masses properly. So, whilst the album was solid and had much promise, it failed to sell in sufficient numbers to really get to the next level.

The lack of sales meant something had to change and so out went Tony Liddell and Terry Brock was recruited. Brock was unknown but had a glorious voice and the band gelled with his superior vocals. This all bore fruit on 1987’s ‘Native Sons’ album which yielded the minor hit Dance With Somebody, produced by John Punter. The album was, and is still, highly rated as a landmark moment in British AOR recordings, one that could stand side by side with anything the US could offer, it was that strong and was highly enjoyable too.

Sadly though, despite positive press and reviews, again Bonaire failed to capitalise on the groundswell of acclaim and the album floundered and then lost momentum completely, leaving the band high and dry once again.

So it was that, once again, in 1987 Strangeways regrouped to record ‘Walk Into The Fire’, this time for RCA as Bonaire had fallen by the wayside. The album did not even get a UK release but was available as an expensive import. As the album failed to gain much (if any) traction in the UK, and with no tour support or dates in tow, the band disappeared from the public eye.

Such is the way of things I guess, although this new set at least gives us the opportunity to revisit and re-evaluate the bands career. It contains their three AOR albums and also their more progressively inclined fourth album, ‘And The Horse’, from 1994 that was ignored by everyone, despite it being particularly good in parts. Terry Brock had left by this time and joined Mike Slamer’s project and then Giant for their ‘Promise Land’ release.

The great little set also includes thirteen demo tracks and four live tracks, which prove the band to be formidable in a concert setting. The band certainly had the skills and the songs but were sadly let down by the record company and by events that were very much beyond their control, yet they left us with several albums of classy song writing and some sterling performances shown across the four discs.

Of the four albums, obviously, ‘Native Sons’ is the standout with its near perfect blend of classy and distinctive AOR and with a world class vocalist in tow raising the songs to an extraordinary standard and level. The debut ‘Strangeways’ album is also a very strong album but lacks that extra bit of sparkle, polish and magic that Terry Brock adds to proceedings. The third album, ‘Into The Fire’, is almost as good as ‘Native Sons’, but not quite and you can begin to sense the frustrations coming out of the band with their lack of progress to greater success and acclaim.

By the fourth album a seismic shift had taken place in that Terry Brock had gone and Ian Stewart had taken over the vocals. In addition, the musical landscape had changed with grunge coming to the fore and so Strangeways had changed their sound, gone was the AOR instead a more bluesy and jazz influenced sound had emerged. It makes this fourth and final album rather interesting and vastly different. Indeed, the sound is a lot more intimate sounding, Ian’s vocals are efficient at best he certainly is no Terry Brock! but his voice suits what is happening musically. The songs are longer, allowing room for Ian to indulge his inner Pink Floyd to fine effect. The album is not an easy one to find these days, so this set offers a terrific opportunity to make its acquaintance    

For me though, it is the first three albums that really shine and, even more so, the second and third ones where Terry Brock’s fine voice really shake the rafters. This is a notable set and one I heartily Recommend to fans of this Genre.

Released 26th May, 2022

Order from Cherry Red here:

Strangeways: Complete Recordings Vol. 1 1985-1994, 4CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records


Review – Steve Gibbons Band: Rollin’ – The Albums – 1976-1978′ – by John Wenlock-Smith

Growing up as I did in Birmingham in the 1970s, I balanced my musical tastes between the hard rock and progressive music and held at bay the encroachment of the punk and new wave genres. It’s odd really, as there were some genuinely interesting things that were going on in that scene like Eddie and The Hot Rods and Racing Cars, to name just two, where energy and talent met head on.

A vast majority of these trod the boards of the stages of either the Birmingham Odeon or the Town Hall. One of the regular visitors being the Steve Gibbons Band, who were local lads who had landed the attention of record label Polydor. They were a band I was aware of but had no relevant knowledge about, neither of them or their music which, in hindsight, was to my detriment as their sound style and influences were so far removed from punk or new wave and being far more R &B or americana in style.

Well, my chance to remedy this issue came by means of this excellent new Polydor box set serving that era and issued by those good people at Cherry Red. This collection includes their entire output for the label of four albums (3 studio and 1 live album) along with a further BBC ‘Live in Concert’ to offer a comprehensive overview of their career. All alongside an informative booklet from the late Malcolm Dome.

I always like a live album as they often portray the more muscular live sound and allow for songs to be stretched out with some improvisation, where appropriate. On this score ‘Caught in the Act’ is a fine document of their live sound, capturing them in various settings, although the actual recording locations and information is not that clear. What the sound reminds me of is a far more organic version of Wishbone Ash as the two guitarists have a similar interplay and dynamic.

Also worthy of note is their debut album, especially the songs Rollin’ and Spark Of Love, both of which pack a punch and show what they were capable of to favourable effect. In addition, this underpins the Wishbone Ash comments, although I can also hear elements of bands like The Allman Brothers, such is the subtle musical interplay in the band.

The set also contains a further live album recording for the BBC from 1977, at the Shepherds Bush Empire, that captures the band in fine form once more and touring in support of their ‘Down In The Bunker’ album.

Steve Gibbons is a fine singer and also a good writer of songs, mostly that tell a story, especially as evidenced on the two live sets and tracks like Mr Jones and in Tupelo Mississippi Flash, about a hick town guitar player, when played live, these songs get time to gel fully and effectively.

I must say that time has treated these albums well and the remastering is beautifully done, giving the sound clarity and wallop where needed. In fact, I am really wondering quite why I never actually listened to these before and, as such, have really missed supporting these local lads when I had the chance, hindsight is a wonderful thing I guess?

Of the three studio albums, I think the first, ‘Any Road Up’, is possibly the best, as it is a band on the cusp of success and all their years of effort are starting to pay off. The album is relatively short though but it has power in the potential it offers, all of which was to find realisation on their second album ‘Rollin On” from 1977. The band were right in the midst of the onslaught of punk and yet still managed to deliver a fine sophomore album including its top 40 single Tulane and other such strong songs as Mr Jones, Tupelo Mississippi Flash and the acapella Right Side Of Heaven that segues brilliantly into Rollin On’. This album is further enhanced by 5 bonus tracks, including 2 songs from a session for John Peel, a man who knew good music when he heard it. Tulane was a big hit for the Steve Gibbons Band and it appears on this set four times in both studio, live and session takes and it’s always a worthy song to hear.

The final studio album, ‘Down In The Bunker’ was produced by Tony Visconti, of David Bowie and Thin Lizzy fame, and packs a good punch too. The album has eight bonus tracks to round it out, although details are scant about these.

What this set offers is a full overview of the band’s years as part of the Polydor label. The band continue today, albeit in a far simpler manner away from major label pressures and hassles, but this set offers a look into their legacy and history and shows them to be a band that Birmingham should be proud, of even today.

Released 7th January, 2022

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Steve Gibbons Band: Rollin’ – The Albums 1976-1978, 5CD Remastered & Expanded Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Phenomena: Phenomena / Dream Runner / Innervision / Anthology – 4CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

Nostalgia is a thing of the past, or so one witty person once said. Although, reading progressive music websites could we have you thinking that prog fans are Living In The Past, as Jethro Tull once sang on their unorthodox album of the same name, released in 1972. A certain sector of prog fans tends to view with suspicion any album released after 1976 and, heaven forbid, anything from the eighties or beyond!

This is unfair and is not completely true, much as I love those classic albums from prog’s so called ‘golden era’, I am also open to newer music, as I am to reissues of classic, long lost, or under-appreciated albums, of which I have reviewed several on this very site.

Many of these lost gems come from the good people at Esoteric/Cherry Red, although some have come from the Rock Candy label whose remit is usually hard rock or AOR type offerings from US Bands who got lost in the mix of all that has happened in the last four decades.

This review features one of those lost gems, namely the Phenomena album from 1985. Phenomena was a project created and  by Tom Galley, the Cannock, Staffordshire younger brother of Mel Galley (the guitarist in the Midlands based band Trapeze). Mel was also heavily involved in the music behind this “concept” album, being able to call up, and recruit, his old band mate Glenn Hughes, who had been with Trapeze for their first three albums before jumping ship and taking over from Roger Glover in Deep Purple. In addition, both Cozy Powell and Neil Murray (who were both members of Mel’s then band Whitesnake) were recruited to the project, as was original Magnum keyboard player Richard Bailey and John Thomas of Budgie.

On paper, the project had the stamp of pedigree with some very well known and established musicians to carry the project forward. The album had interesting packaging with a deluxe booklet with the lyrics and the artwork of Ian Lowe’s interpretation of the songs (along with the lyrics and album credits). All this occurred on the then Bronze label home of Uriah Heep and another local hero Robin George, who also had Magnum connections. However, Bronze were in trouble financially, their golden days of Uriah Heep selling millions of albums were long past and they were struggling to make ends meet, As such, despite the huge promotional push for Phenomena, it sadly failed to make the sales expected, Robin George’s then album, ‘Dangerous Music’, suffering a similar fate.

Listening to the album again now ,nearly 40 years on, is fascinating and, yes, the music certainly stands up well and is rightly due for re-evaluation, This set comprises all three Phenomena albums, along with the ‘Anthology’ album that includes three tracks from the original album, three from the second album, ‘Dream Runner’, and four from the third, and final, Phenomena album, ‘Innervision’. In addition, there are three non-album tracks and two 12″ single mixes of Did It All For Love and Still The Night. Also, there is a booklet for each album that gives the lowdown, who plays what and the full lyrics to each album, all well presented in a sturdy clamshell box.

The music itself is prominently British heavy rock of the mid 1980’s so think Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy or Gary Moore and you’re in the right territory. What really lifts the album into something special though are the tremendous vocals of Glenn Hughes who is absolutely fabulous throughout and sings his lungs out on tracks like Still the Night and Phoenix Rising. Also very noteworthy is the demonic violin playing of Ric Sanders (latterly of Fairport Convention) on the track Dance With The Devil. It is utterly mesmerising and backed up with some muscular musical accompaniment. The last track on the album is a little different in that it is performed by a boys’ choir who wordlessly intone Latin, which gives a certain gothic nature to the track.

On listening to the album, I think I can spot where they went wrong in that the concept was not clear enough for listeners to fully grasp and so this was a factor in not really reaching the heights they had wanted to achieve. Also, there were a myriad of confusing releases from the album which, over time, diluted the album’s appeal and could be viewed as hype that was not fully realised. This was a pity as the original album had good material and performances throughout and really deserved far better than it received.

The next Phenomena album was released, again to much fanfare, in 1987, some two years after the original album. This time around they took a more Sci-Fi based storyline and plot, although, again, the concept got lost in the mix a little. This time they had, in addition to Glenn Hughes, John Wetton of Asia, Ray Gillen of Black Sabbath and members of Japanese band Bow Wow, whose guitarist and drummer came on board, as did Max Bacon of Bronz, another group whose success was limited by the collapse of the Bronze label.

The music was, again, very mid eighty’s hard rock, although John Wetton’s vocal on Did It All for Love gave the album a big boost in certain markets like Europe and South America, where it was a big hit, making the album even more successful than the first. It still stands as a fine piece of hard rock from that era, stand out tracks being Did It All For Love, Hearts On Fire, Jukebox  and No Retreat, No Surrender, on which Ray Gillen turns in a memorable performance. Again, the artwork is very suited to the album and the booklet details the saga of getting the album out. It was quite a struggle and the fact they managed it speaks volumes to the faith they had in the project, which was thankfully repaid upon release.

The third album in this set is the ‘Innervision’ album from 1993, this time the concept was far less ethereal or supernatural and was more like a gangster story. The music is more up to date, in that it sounded like a British Bon Jovi with big riffs and choruses and with a great, little known, vocalist, Keith Murrell (who had sung with Cliff Richard and Airrace, amongst others). The big star on this album was Brian May, who Scott Gorham knew and asked to play on two songs, What About Love? and A Whole Lot Of Love. The lineup may have been slimmed down but, even so, the music has fire and guts and still sounds good today, some 28 years on. I never bought this instalment as it was always expensive, so it’s good to have it in this set now. Again, the booklet tells the story behind the album and the difficulties they had in getting it released, 7 years after the second and 10 years after the first album.

Banzai sounds like a Foreigner song with some crunchy guitar riffs amidst the keyboards, the big song is What About Love, featuring the aforementioned Brian May on guitar, and this sounds truly epic with masses of backing vocals. They were trying to get Freddie Mercury to sing but, sadly, it never happened, imagine how that would have sounded! Yet again, the concept gets lost in the mix somehow but, the songs and music are exceptionally fine indeed and Keith Murrell is a fine singer who brings fire and passion to these songs, making this third instalment a real treat and an undiscovered classic album.

Having said all this, I do feel that these albums are worthy of far more appreciation than they received at the time and the additional tracks and excellent booklets provide information that makes this set very worthy of investigation. Of its time and era for certain but both marvellous and bold, in the face of many difficulties and with definite progressive moments and wonderful performances by all. In addition, the set features three previously unreleased tracks, Assassins Of The Night and Running With The Pack with Glenn Hughes and Stealing Heaven with Keith Murrell, and 12″ mixes of Did It All For Love and Still the Night.

Order the box set from Cherry Red here:

Phenomena: Phenomena / Dream Runner / Innervision / Anthology, 4CD – Cherry Red Records

Review – Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – by John Wenlock-Smith

This extensive 8 CD sets collates the recordings made in the period 1974 to 1977 along with the 1984 album ‘The 13th Dream’ and tracks drawn from previously unreleased live concerts from 1974 and 1975. In fact, this set boasts 102 bonus track along with the albums ‘Spirit of 76’, ‘Son of Spirit’, ‘Future Games’, ‘Farther Along’ and ‘The Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ and this reveals the Mercury era to be a wonderful creative period for the band. Whilst hampered on many fronts, they still managed to overcome the obstacles and make some decent music once again.

The music is of its time certainly, but still shows that Randy California’s passion had not been eradicated. The story behind this period is excellently documented in the booklet that accompanies this set and, as always with these Spirit sets, the attention to detail to both preserve and celebrate the music is very laudable. With the death of California in 1996 in Hawaii, there is much that cannot be told now but these sets certainly help tell the story eloquently and with respect, admiration and dignity.

Spirit really deserve wider acclaim and affection than they received from music lovers, theirs was a niche sector and they continued to create worthy music throughout the years, as this set attests beautifully. Once again, Mick Skidmore has crafted a labour of love from myriad sources and compiled another fantastic selection of Spirit’s musical legacy.

This set has much to offer lovers of quality music and, when you factor in all the tracks, this represents the most comprehensive overview of the era in which Spirit worked for the Mercury label and pushed the boundaries in the way they knew best to create intelligent music for the discerning listener to enjoy and appreciate.

Disc 1 has the first three sides of the ‘Spirit of 76’ album, disc 2 has the fourth side of said album along with live bonus tracks from that time period. Disc 3 has the ‘Son of Spirit’ and the ‘Further Along’ albums plus a further four session outtakes and a live version of the track Farther Along from 1976, disc 4 has the ‘Future Games’ album from 1977 and eleven Further session tracks from 1976 and 1977. Disc 5 has the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of 84)’ album along with six live cuts from Detroit in 1986 and disc 6, ‘Spirit of Salvation’, features unreleased studio material from 1974 and 1975. Disc 7 is a live set from Austin Texas in 1975, including a lengthy version of All The Same and, finally, disc 8 features an early version of the ‘Future Games’ album and a live set from the Array Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio in 1975 which wraps the set up wonderfully.

There are many hours of inspiration and passion covered in this set and it is highly recommended as this brand really do deserve wider appreciation for their craft and diligence over the years.

For me the highlights are plentiful and include the fabulous Like A Rolling Stone on disc 1. Randy and the band show imaginative twists on well known songs and it’s always a delight to hear how they have they take a song and use it as a framework on which to deliver their own interpretation. This is seen elsewhere in the set with stunning re-imaginations of America The Beautiful, All Along The Watchtower, Hey Joe and Mr Tambourine Man all receiving such a treatment, delicately and sensitively covered with care and skill and a real joy to hear. these great. The highlights continue disc after disc, each capturing a band truly progressing musically. Some of which works well, others less so, but it’s always interesting and intriguingly done. Some of this set rocks hard and powerfully, it’s always good to hear Randy in full flight as he had a lightness of touch and was a very skilled player who could shred easily and with style. This is shown on the track Veruska where he really gets to cut loose a little, it’s simply wonderful to hear. Then we are treated to and echoplexed version of Hey Joe which shows that not only Hendrix could cover this song in a classy manner, Randy’s vocal adding emotion to a great version of the song.

These tracks are taken from side four of the ‘Spirit 76’ album and show what an underrated album that truly was, one that passed a lot of folk by. This sets offers an opportunity to revisit and reevaluate it again. With the benefit of the passing years, this album now shows a depth that it may have lacked previously. The album ends with The Star Spangled Banner, a version you’d least expect but, even so, it is an interesting take on a well known song. There’s a lot going on in the background and, musically, it’s mainly understated really. The bonus tracks include an alternative version of America The Beautiful that is a fabulous find and there are also some great live versions of several classic Spirit tracks live in Cleveland that show what a dynamic live outfit they could be.

It’s all a richly rewarding listen as the band ooze class and talent. Randy is in fine voice throughout these songs with some delicate masterful playing giving an excellent performance and revealing that he was widely overlooked in the public eye. More’s the pity as he deserved far more acclaim and recognition of his talents than he received during his lifetime.

The third disc comprises of two Spirit albums ‘Son of Spirit’ (1976) and ‘Farther Along’ (1977), both of which are fairly gentle sounding but with virtually a reunion of the original Spirit band, although John Locke had left again after the infamous Neil Young incident in Santa Monica in 1976 in which California had pushed a drunken Young out of his way as he was “singing badly out of key”.

The album has some good tracks, especially Family, but is all fairly mellow and lacks much guitar and some fire to lift the material to the fore. Circle is great, as is The Other Song, which benefits from having a strong groove to it and that allows for some improvisation to happen almost naturally. It all sounds impressive, as does the cover of Yesterday in which Randy’s guitar accompaniment is really tasteful and sounds glorious as a result. In fact, the beauty of this album really shows the more you hear it, it really is a fine collection of material.

The ‘Farther Along’ album follows afterwards and this is another good set of songs with the title track in particular being a bit of an unsung classic in reality. Another fantastic track is the rocker Mega Star that manages to embrace keyboard elements that are highly reminiscent of Emerson Lake and Palmer, yes, really! It is a very impressive sounding track. The album also includes an orchestrated version of Nature’s Way that impresses. So, whilst not the strongest of albums, they certainly have moments of greatness and are worth reinvestigation.

‘Future Games’ is an interesting, but flawed, concept album that alludes to escaping the reality of everyday life and uses lots of sound snippets of shows like Star Trek and Batman etc. but it isn’t always an easy listening experience and generally falls short as a brave but flawed idea that is possibly best left in the midst of time. Far better is the ‘Thirteenth Dream (Spirit of ’84)’ album which had a reunion of the full original Spirit line up, recorded on a soundstage in Hollywood and including both Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne tracks, which really sound great.

The other discs comprise of more outtakes, a live set from Austin Texas in 1975 and a demo version of the ‘Future Games’ album, along with some further live tracks from the Agora in Cleveland Ohio from 1975, which are certainly of interest to fans. Well I like them and I’m glad they are here, for me, any live Spirit is welcome as it’s live where the band used to shine most brightly.

In summary, this set is definitely extensive and is a well presented look into an era that is usually either dismissed or ignored but, in reality, it has gems throughout that are a worth investigating fully. The legacy of Spirit is comprehensively overhauled with great enthusiasm and love for a seminal band, long may this continue.

Released 8th October, 2021

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Spirit: Sunrise & Salvation – The Mercury Era Anthology, 8CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Hardin & York: Can’t Keep A Good Man Down – The Hardin & York Anthology – by John Wenlock-Smith

I grew up in the 1970’s and discovered rock music through my peers who were buying albums from Virgin mail order in the early part of the 1970’s. This was mainly albums by The Groundhogs, I particularly remember ‘Split’ and ‘Hogwash’ being popular at that time. They then  moved onto Deep Purple and the ‘Burn’ album, although Supertramp’s ‘Crime of the Century’ was also popular with this group of my peers. I eventually followed suit and became enamoured with Purple’s ‘Made in Japan’ album and also with Emerson Lake and Palmer’s ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. Also popular was Ian Hunter’s book ‘Diary of a Rock and Roll Star’ that was passed about during my schooldays, a book that I grew to love and treasure to this day .

So, why then, in all those times, did no one ever mention this duo to me? Maybe it was because there were only two of them and they looked a bit wet if I am honest but, listening to them now, I can clearly see that I missed out on something different and really special. This fabulous Box set from Grapefruit via Cherry Red is something very spectacular, comprising as it does their entire 1970’s output in one neat 6 CD set with a highly informative booklet along with lots of unreleased tracks, including an early German Bootleg recording of Eddie Hardin and Pete York Recorded in Germany in 1970.

If, like me, you like the organ playing of Keith Emerson then this set will be a revelation to you, especially the live side of ‘The Worlds Smallest Big Band’ and the whole of the ‘Live at The Marquee’ album, both of which feature extensive organ workouts from Eddie Hardin.

Hardin and York came out of the latter day incarnation of The Spencer Davis Group in which Eddie had replaced the recently departed Steve Winwood, being of a similar voice and playing keyboards. Pete York was the drummer and the two joined forces after leaving Spencer Davis. They were tremendously popular in Germany and, to a lesser extent, here in the UK where they were frequent Performers at places like The Mothers club in Birmingham and The Marquee. Their stage show was energetic and, with just the two of them, it needed to be to capture the attention of the audience. They did this by using the dynamics of a sole keyboard player along with a jazz rooted drummer who packed a mighty punch, their interplay was dazzling and effusive at times, especially shown here on the various live tracks on this compilation.  

The first disc is their 1969 Debut album with six tracks recorded for a 1969 BBC Radio session and this is quite a strong opening statement that the pair deliver. For a duo they certainly kick up a lot of noise between them, Eddie Hardin has a very soulful voice and you can see why Spencer Davis hired him to replace the departing Winwood. The sound is full and the organ playing is dynamic and aggressive, it reminds me a lot of the playing of Purple’s Jon Lord, with whom Hardin worked with in latter years. This music has lots of energy to it and it will appeal to early Deep Purple or Nice fans, or indeed anyone that is interested in keyboard driven rock of the late 60’s / Early 1970’s.

For me, ‘The Worlds Smallest Big Band’ and ‘Live at the Marquee’ discs capture this duo at their peak, especially on the utterly fabulous Rock and Roll Medley (JailhouseRock/Mean Woman Blues/Rip it Up), The Pike and the Northern Medley (Lady Madonna/ Norwegian Wood)  that form part of the live in the studio recordings side of the album. The Rock And Roll Medley, with all its energy and atmosphere is really good and, as it’s just the two of them, sounds fabulous, mind-blowing actually! It is so unusual and different, you wouldn’t believe how good just an organ and drums could possibly sound and you don’t miss a guitarist or bass player as its all covered by Eddie’s Hammond Organ filling the gaps spectacularly. This is so brilliant you cannot believe that you have never heard this before, it is like being music’s best kept secret somehow and you feel all the better for being in the know about this duo.

The Pike, a track about their long serving roadie, is a tour de force between Eddie’s Hammond and Pete’s jazz chops with some spectacular drumming and some solid and virtuosic organ playing in a style like that of Keith Emerson, it is utterly fantastic and awesome in sound, as it shows just how fine a keyboard player Eddie Hardin really was. This is followed by the equally fine Northern Medley and this one really works the Hammond to the extreme with lots of improvised runs, all subtly supported by the syncopation that Pete York’s jazzy drumming allows. This is fabulous music and shows just how strong the bond between Hardin and York was and how the two complemented each other’s abilities and talents, it really is something to behold, appreciate and enjoy. 

Even better though is the 1971 ‘Live at the Marquee’ disc that was, presumably, a double LP back in the day but the information in the booklet is not clear on the release of this album. Suffice to say that it is 68-minute romp through music that was otherwise not recorded by Hardin and York ,with an extended version of The Pike in which both musicians get room to showcase their talents to good effect. It is the standout track of this album although Freedom Suite is also particularly good too. For me, this disc shows the very best that this group had to offer, with its mix of dazzling drumming and strong keyboard playing, it really is a long-lost classic restored to its full glory and is highly recommended indeed.

The other discs in this set are good but overshadowed by that fantastic live album, it really is a masterpiece and one that makes this set well worth looking out for. Eddie Hardin recorded other albums and recorded a final reunion release ‘Still a few Pages Left’ in 2005 and then sadly he suffered a fatal heart attack in July 2015, leaving behind a rich musical heritage and is sadly missed. This set gives an opportunity to see the brilliance that he possessed and how unassuming and yet proficient he was during the Hardin and York years.

Released 28th May, 2021

Order from Cherry red here:

Hardin & York: Can’t Keep A Good Man Down – The Hardin & York Anthology, 6CD Box Set – Cherry Red Records

Review – Ray Fenwick – Playing Through The Changes – Anthology 1964-2020 – by John Wenlock-Smith

Modern music has long had its own set of musical minstrels who journey between different groups and sounds, how would Elvis sound without Scotty Moore and James Burton’s inspired playing? where would Cliff and most British rock be without Hank Marvin’s Stratocaster and graceful guitar lines? Music is littered with the artists whose sole role was to make the music the boss, make it sound better or different. Ray Fenwick is one such journeyman musician who skills have graced recording of the Spencer Davis Group, Fancy, the Ian Gillan Band and many over in his 50 plus year career, Ray also replaced Steve Howe in The Syndicats in 1964.

Ray is probably best known for his time in the Ian Gillan Band, which was formed after Gillan first left Deep Purple in 1973. The music the band made was hugely different from Purple with more Jazz, and even funk, elements present. The Ian Gillan Band made three albums, ‘Child in Time’, ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ and ‘Scarabus’, along with a set recorded in Japan that gained eventual UK release after the band had split up.

Ray is also remembered for his part in the Fancy project, who recorded a steam version of Wild Thing by The Troggs, the band was originally fronted by Penthouse Pet Helen Caunt, then by Annie Kavanagh, an ex-Musicals singer who had appeared in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. Fancy had a follow up hit single She’s Riding the Rock Machine that was also a bit hit in the states.

Their unique blend of poppy, funky rock was in a similar vein to The Average White Band and, whilst Fancy enjoyed some US success, they failed to capitalise on it in any significant way which then led to Ray getting involved with Roger Glover’s Butterfly Ball, project where he worked along with various Deep Purple related musicians, including Ian Gillan which is where the Ian Gillan Band idea was first conceived.

This expansive 3 CD set covers all areas of Ray’s career and includes a few rarities, along with some excellent tracks that really show Ray’s skills as a guitarist, writer and arranger. Especially fine is an eight minute plus psychedelic track called The Dream, recorded for Ray’s 1971 solo album ‘Keep America Beautiful, Get A Haircut’, released in 1971 on the Decca Label, an album that now commands a hefty price tag on various well-known auction sites and on line retailers It may be time for a proper reissue?

After the Ian Gillan Band years, Ray turned to being a session musician, recording with a variety of artists including Roger Glover and Eddie Hardin’ (in his Wizard Convention albums and concert) and worked with Graham Bonnet before forming the all-star rock project Forcefield in the mid 1980’s. This called on such luminaries as Jon Lord, Don Airey, Neil Murray and Cozy Powel. Jan Akkerman appearing on ‘Forcefield 3 – To Oz and Back’, along with Graham Bonnet.

If I have one criticism of this set it would be that the music is so very varied that it would be better presented in sets or eras, that way you could have all the 60’s tracks together, all the Deep Purple related tracks in one place and also Forcefield and Ray’s solo stuff and session work together. This would give better continuity and make this more accessible to listen to. That is just my opinion though and, hell, what do I know? I am only a reviewer, not the artist.

Some of these tracks are really hidden gems that passed the public at large by and really deserve a platform and should be heard. I am thinking of the Wizards Convention tracks, especially Money to Burn with David Coverdale, who turns in a fabulous performance. The Wizards Convention 2 tracks also impress, as does the Hardin and York track Have Mercy Woman. In fact, the second disc is crammed full of good tracks and many surprises, also noticeable is just how versatile a guitarist and musician Ray really is, playing a mean slide guitar on Between the Devil and Me.

The different styles of music that Ray plays on this set range from hard rock, jazz fusion, pop and country to reggae and all points in between. The more progressive of his work appears as tracks by Ray Fenwick in the main, although there is a whole stack of stuff to enjoy over the three discs. Packaged in a handsome three panel set with good photos and a highly informative booklet that gives the lowdown on his extraordinary career, this is a fine set indeed and well up to the usual standard of Cherry Red reissues and box sets.

Released 30th April, 2021

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Ray Fenwick: Playing Through The Changes – Anthology 1964-2020, 3CD – Cherry Red Records

Review – Fanfare For The Uncommon Man – The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert 2CD/2DVD – by John Wenlock-Smith

Keith Emerson needs little or no introduction, he was a monster keyboard player for Emerson, Lake and Palmer of course, though he was also successful in his own right as a composer. Sadly, as he grew older Keith lost some of his astounding dexterity and, despite operations to his hands, sadly felt that his abilities to perform had become diminished significantly. This resulted in him falling into in severe bouts of depression and even alcoholism, which all became too much for him and he took his own life by gunshot on 11th March 2016 in Santa Monica, California. The world was shocked that one of the finest keyboard players of recent times was no more.

Well, that was five years ago now and his life was celebrated in style in 2016 when an all-star band of LA’s finest musicians assembled at the El Ray Theatre in Los Angeles to play his music and remember and acknowledge the inspiration that he had been to many of them over the years. The upshot of this is a concert movie and 2CD set of the event being released this year by Cherry Red Records in a lavish package with simply amazing artwork and production values, along with interviews with the various band members and photo galleries of Keith and his life and times, all of which together chronicles this very special and memorable night for posterity.

The list of musicians featured is mighty impressive including members of Toto and Dream Theater along with Eddie Jobson (UK and Roxy Music), Jeff Baxter (Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan), Brian Auger, Rachel Flowers, C J Vanston and many others, like Marc Bonilla of Keith’s old band and his close friend who was a major mover in getting the show together. The event also featured Emerson’s son Aaron, and members of his solo band and his Three Fates Project group.

The CDs capture live recordings of all the songs featured in the movie although sometimes in a truncated version. The sound is excellent throughout and the material is largely drawn from the first Four ELP albums, with four songs from the self-titled debut, two from ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, three from ‘Tarkus’ and three from ‘Trilogy’ plus Karn Evil 9: First Impression – Part 2, Touch and Go (from ‘Emerson Lake and Powell’) and Fanfare For The Common Man in two versions, one with brass orchestration and the other with Blue Rondo A La Turk improvisation.

I have to say that, whilst this is a fabulous set, there are a few pieces that I would have liked to have seen covered, namely Jerusalem, Trilogy and Piano Concerto to name but three, also there is a marked lack of anything from the latter days’ reunion period, but this is most probably me just nit picking. What is here is perfectly fine and has some incredible musicians performing some extraordinarily complex pieces with skill, style and panache. Everything is played in a very sympathetic manner, with great respect to Keith, who was obviously a much loved, and now sadly missed character.

Marc Bonilla sings very well indeed throughout, as do the other vocalists, Marc also delivers some great guitar lines on here, mirroring and adding to what the various keyboard players are playing. The Performances are all exceptionally good indeed, those of C J Vanston and Rachel Flowers shine especially. Brian Augers interpretation and improvisation on Fanfare For The Common Blue Turkey is quite different and really captures one’s interest. Another highlight is the delight of seeing Eddie Jobson playing the modular Moog synthesizer on Lucky Man.

Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater delivers a powerful performance on the 20 minutes plus rendition of Tarkus, a track he gleefully states as a major influence on his playing. Here he revels in the performance of this in a suite of songs where Tarkus is the penultimate track before the encores are offered, namely Lucky Man/The Great Gates of Kiev and Fanfare For The Common Man, with Are You Ready Eddy? concluding the show.

I know in some quarters that ELP have become a dirty word full of excessive showmanship and not offering much for the listeners of today. However, I disagree completely and suggest that this music needs to be rediscovered again and given its rightful place in the annals of progressive rock. 

So, if you like the music of Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Keith Emerson then this set offers you both two excellent CDs and a full length DVD (plus a second DVD of bonus features) that captures this magnificent concert in all is spectacle and power, just sit back, turn the volume up and let the Moogs fly again. Best played loud, just as Keith would have wanted, this certainly is a most enjoyable stroll down memory lane, if you have 3 hours or so to spare. Brilliantly filmed, well presented and produced, the music offered on these discs reminds us of just how great a keyboard player and composer Keith Emerson truly was, along with why he should be remembered as such. I applaud all who took part for the great music they made and are now are able to share with us, sit back relax and enjoy this again and again.

Released March 19th 2021

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

Fanfare For The Uncommon Man: The Official Keith Emerson Tribute Concert, 2CD/2DVD Edition – Cherry Red Records

Review – Spirit – Son Of America Reissue – by John Wenlock-Smith

Last year I spent a lot of the time rediscovering and collecting music by the legendary Californian Band Spirit who had been very successful in their early days notching up a string of classic albums such as ‘Spirit’, ‘The Family That Plays Together’, ‘Clear’ and ‘Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’. Their initial run of success on the Epic label preceded the inevitable split and loss of two of the founders who left to form Jo Jo Gunne. The remaining members soldiered on on the Mercury label releasing several more fine albums before a low period and the resumption of activities in 1979 with a live album, there then followed a period of Randy California solo releases.

Spirit sadly are no more as Randy California was drowned in a riptide in Hawaii while successfully saving his then 9-year-old son. Since that time, a series of releases of archival material has been released by various labels but now much of this has been acquired by Esoteric who, in conjunction with Mick Skidmore, are re-releasing these albums in newly remastered versions, often with extra material.

Now some may see this is as dreadful or shocking but I personally find these reissues worthy and of note, which bring us to this latest instalment – Spirit’s ‘Son of America’ in a 3CD set with a bonus live disc of a three-piece set recorded live at KPFK on 4th April 1993.

In my opinion, this reissue is worth it for this last disc alone which contains 16 hitherto unreleased pieces recorded live in the studio on an 8 track recorder and now transferred to a shiny new compact disc and it also includes a solo Randy California/John Locke live take of Animal Zoo from 1989.

The main album, ‘Son of America’, was originally issued in 2005 and has long been out of print so to have it in a remastered format is very fine indeed. The album has 25 songs on CD1 and 19 Songs on CD2, which makes this a value set of some sublime Spirit songs and instrumentals. Most of this is in the form of home recordings, mainly by Randy California on guitar and vocals, Ed Cassidy on drums and percussion and Scott Monahan on keyboards, with occasional appearances from Mark Andes, Steve “Liberty” Loria, John Locke, Matt Andes, Rachel Andes, Bruce Gary and Janet Wolfe.

Some of these songs have surfaced on earlier albums or are live Spirit staples like The Times They Are a Changing. Most of the songs come in around the three-minute mark but still shine with their creativity clearly apparent and, rather than do a deep review, I have chosen a few highlights that will hopefully show you why this is worthy of your listening.

The opening track Space Jam is exactly that, a loose sounding jam with some spacy guitar lines and a gentle melody. It is all very ambient sounding but certainly impressive as is the next track, Prophecy, which is a mid-tempo rocker with some lively guitar, prominent bass lines and a good strong vocal from Randy. Everything chugs along nicely with a slinky guitar line and a solo thereafter on which Randy gets to wail a bit towards the end of the song.

Thomas Q and Jennifer is also a good song with its piano backing and great ensemble playing which, along with a good use of dynamics, brings this song to life with these excellent performances. Much of this music is acoustic, embellished with keyboards and bass and this approach works very well as the songs are given chance to breathe and are not overproduced at, all a clear case of less is more.

The Times They Are A Changing is a shorter, spiritualised version of the Dylan classic, sung with feeling and much in the spirit of the original. It features Randy on acoustic guitar and harmonica along with some sympathetic keyboards and drums in tow. This is a fairly chilled and mellow take but with some great double tracked guitars on it that bring it to life. Also worthy of note is an excellent reading of Lennon and McCartney’s Let It Be that is beautifully rendered with a very appealing vocal from Randy and an unidentified male vocalist.

However, I guess for most that it will be the third Disc – ‘Spirit Live at KPFK in 1993’ that will be the big draw as it really is a unique record of a very obscure radio show and one that features great in-between-song chat and some dynamic performances of some old classic Spirit songs and material.   

Son of America, the title track, was penned for Vietnam veterans and is a protest song of sorts detailing how a son goes off to fight a war to defend America’s freedom. This has a fine guitar solo in support of the song as he talks of losing his friend last night. It is quite a sad and moving song, especially when you consider how America has treated those same veterans so badly over the years.    

All in all, a worthy collection for completists and fans alike.

Released 26th March 2021

Order from Cherry Red here:

Spirit: Son Of America, 3CD Remastered & Expanded Edition – Cherry Red Records

Review – Samurai – Samurai – Remastered, Expanded Edition – by John Wenlock-Smith

This review is of the recently issued re-release on CD of the 1971 album by early UK progressive rock band Samurai. This was originally issued by the Greenwich Gramophone label and featured Dave Greenslade (who later found further fame as a member of Dave Greenslade’s Greenslade which, oddly enough, also included Greenwich’s creative director Tony Reeves).

This album is new to me even though, as a youngster, I was enthralled by Greenslade’s music and covers. This stemmed from hours spent in a local record shop in Sutton Coldfield (called Preedy’s) who sold records in their basement and in which I discovered Greenslade. Whilst I loved the band, I knew little of the members earlier previous musical heritage or history, which is probably why this album passed by me unnoticed, so now is the chance to rectify that situation.

One thing that rapidly becomes apparent is that Dave Lawson certainly added far more to Greenslade’s sound than I had previously thought. Here his vocals are really impassioned and interesting and as rich as his keyboard playing in fact. Whilst this music is of its time and has many of the attendant deficiencies, what it does have is lots of energy and, musically, a lot going on.

The album opens with Saving It Up For So Long, containing a meaty hefty bassline from John Eaton along with swirling keyboards from Dave Lawson, a complex  guitar line from Tony Edwards and sax from Tony Roberts and Don Fey. The use of the brass section makes this very unusual and certainly interesting. The next song, More Rain, is a far mellower affair and shows what Dave bought to Greenslade. Being mellow in its tone and mood doesn’t mean that the song is dull, far from it, the song had a casual pace to it but it still swings nicely making it a fine listen.

Next up is another sax fronted piece, Maudie James, which sounds somewhat sultry and moody before some fine piano leads the song forward again. Another fine Lawson vocal propels the song along with brass incursions parping at various points making this sound very good indeed.

This really is an interesting album and one that deservedly gets a fine reissue from the lovely folks at Esoteric Arts, who once again live up to their image and policy of remastering and reimagining the classics well. They have done a great job with a great sound and have included three hitherto unreleased live tracks from a show in Sweden in 1971, along with an informative booklet with comments from Dave Lawson.

Give A Little Love opens with some rather urgent guitar backed up with horn blasts creating a solid wall of sound. This is done in a good way, some interesting keyboard tones adding to this song and a fine guitar riff with its subtle wah-wah usage driving the song forward before a jazz sax solo comes to the fore. The next two songs are the longer Face In The Mirror and As I Dried The Tears Away, both of which offer room for the music to stretch out a bit more. In the case of Face In The Mirror, this allows the bass to carry a walking beat to proceedings interspersed with subtle keyboards and guitar lines.

The song is quite different in tone, again being mellow in parts but the instrumentation is certainly striking and interesting as is the guitar solo from Tony Edwards who uses his effects pedals well, with the precise drums of Lennie Wright offering solid support for his efforts, making this track a real winner. As I Dried The Tears Away utilises its longer length to good effect, opening with some jazzy keyboards and a growling bass. Good use of vibes offer a shimmer to the sound, again very similar sounding to Dave’s later sounds, and his unusual voice and tone are well displayed herein. A nice brief guitar part as the song proceeds helps gather momentum and pace before a more jazz sounding passage is played with swirling organ parts and bells and whistles being employed, very psychedelic sounding in parts with excellent keyboard passages used.    

The last three songs are live versions of album songs, of which the extended version of Holy Padlock comes out strongest as its extra couple of minutes are used wisely and to maximum effect. The sound takes up an urgent and strident pace halfway through that really swings well. The vocals are somewhat buried in the mix but the band certainly seem to be playing up a storm here. Final Live track is More Rain and, again, this live version really shines, the horns work well creating the sound and making noticeable inserts to the song. The guitar line is also carried well with subtle wah-wah really making it sound very good indeed.

The live tracks show this band could deliver in a live setting although, sadly, that opportunity to develop was cut short as key members became disillusioned and left, leaving Lawson and Reeves free to join Dave Greenslade’s project Greenslade, where their talent would blend to create new magical music over their four album career. 

Tracks: Saving It Up For So Long 3:47, More Rain 4:29, Maudie James 4:59, Holy Padlock 4:45, Give A Little Love 3:42, Face In The Mirror 6:46, As I Dried The Tears Away 8:25, Give A Little Love (Live) 5:12, Holy Padlock (Live) 7:49, More Rain (Live) 4:30.  

Released 25th September 2020

Order from Cherry Red Records here:

https://www.cherryred.co.uk/product/samurai-remastered-expanded-edition/