How much music is known to us because of our friends and families is something I have often pondered. For me personally, I grew up with parents who listened to light classics and easy listening like James Last, Johnny Mathis, Herb Albert and the like. When I became a teenager Virgin Records was very much still in its infancy, selling most of its music through adverts in Melody Maker. I had friends who bought albums that way and they would talk about their purchases regularly.
I seem to recall ‘Who Will Save The World? The Might Groundhogs’ and ‘Hogwash’ by The Groundhogs being discussed and recommended in this manner. Shortly after this, around 1975, a good friend of mine, Peter Bonner, introduced me to musical nirvana when he took me to Reddington’s Rare Records in Birmingham (behind Marks and Spencer’s) where I began my aural journey into proper music and not the chart music normally heard. This was grown up music, with Reddington’s being my mecca, a place where you could learn both the art and the thrill of crate digging. This also introduced the concept of album trading, something I began to do on a very regular basis.
When I started my career in shipping and forwarding (or logistics as we call it now) this meant a whole new world of friends and acquaintances to deal with. For me, being a puny, weak but feisty youth, this meant finding common ground was crucial and music became the access key I would use frequently in conversations. I was an avid learner who scoured the music press weekly for news and information that could help me with this.
During this time I met a friend called Trevor Hopkins, whose brother Micky was a guitarist in local Birmingham band Quartz and who had released a live album, ‘Live Quartz’, via Redding tons own label. Micky was also friendly with Jeff Lynne of ELO and Trevor used to sell me albums of his. These included an album that came from Polydor signings Rare Bird, it was a prog album, only I was not educated in that realm at the time, more’s the pity as I definitely missed out there. He also introduced me to Little Feat’s ‘Sailin’ Shoes’ and ‘Dixie Chicken’ and sadly, again, I didn’t really get it. My main sphere of musical reference being ’24 Carat Purple’, ‘Made In Japan’ and Yessongs.
Nowadays, of course, it’s different, my tastes have broadened and developed much further. In 2012 I began, at the age of 53, reviewing music and this opened up even more opportunities and musical vistas! Which is a very long preamble to this review of Headstone’s Polydor albums!
Headstone were, you see, related to Rare Bird as Mark Ashton had been Rare Bird’s drummer for their first two albums. When he left (musical differences no doubt), he formed Headstone with Steve Bolton, previously with Atomic Rooster, with him the main writer and singer. Headstone were touted as a super group but failed to really establish any kind of form, they only recorded two albums, ‘Bad Habits’ and ‘Headstone’ in 1974 and 1975 respectively. The albums are not too bad really but failed to make any great impression. There is a strong almost soul and funk style to them and most tracks are short ones leaving little room for much improvisation.
When I heard about this release I wanted to hear it as the Rare Bird set was very good and held good memories for me. This is a pity as the potential was certainly there it just was not captured and as such didn’t translate into very captivating music. Of the two albums, ‘Headstone’ is a better listen than ‘Bad Habits’, this is possibly because the line up was more stable and, being mostly younger players, was a little more hungry to make it, although they failed on that score. Even a Hipgnosis styled cover didn’t help shift albums either, the songs are quite good, the playing is proficient enough and the production is clear and uncluttered, it is just not that interesting and nothing really makes you go wow.
The opening two songs on the ‘Bad Habits’ album do make a mark though, Don’t Turn Your Back and Take Me Down are both great songs and show a direction the failed to follow fully. One thing Headstone did have that increases interest is the violin playing of Joe O’Donnell who elevates the tracks substantially but, even so, are let down by the actual songs which really aren’t very good either and whilst musically proficient, they don’t make a lasting impression.
Hard Road does a fair stab at being interesting with a Dylan-esque opening and some great violin flourishes that try to take the song somewhere new and fresh, but even this gets a little lost on the way and drifts into directionless, a missed opportunity it seems. Best track of the lot is actually both the longest and the last track on ‘Headstone’, Someone’s Got To Give, which has a sense of urgency sadly missing from most of the album. It has good violin parts, great guitar and some stylish dynamics that are missing elsewhere on the record. It is not a bad song overall and the middle section at least has a bit of fire to it, again, sadly lacking from what has gone before but it is more rewarding as they at least have to space to stretch out a little, which is really needed.
So, in summary, this 2 CD set has it moments although, in the main, these are few and far between and the band fail to capitalise on the potential and talent. As usual, the presentation by Esoteric is flawless and the booklet gives a good insight into their story. Sadly Headstone folded not long after the second album, despite support slots with Roy Harper, John Cale and Rory Gallagher. Ashton disappeared for a few years but resurfaced for a few albums made for 20th Century and Arista before the 1988 album ‘Modern Pilgrims’ on RCA whichreceived critical acclaim but he disappeared back into obscurity once more. Sadly Mark is no longer with us but this set allows us another opportunity to reconnect with his music once again.
Released 25th August, 2023
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