The rise of British 1970s stoner rock explored in an impressive box set of obscure musical heaviness.
Who or what is / was ‘a freak’? My own understanding of this term was forged in the mid Seventies and since then for me it’s always denoted somebody who wanted to grow their hair and expand their consciousness (via music and other means) without abandoning their home comforts to rough it in some commune. A personal reminiscence would seem to be in order at this point. Later in the Seventies I accompanied a Gong-obsessed friend to Liverpool’s De Montfort Hall to meet and interview Daevid Allen for an abortive ‘underground magazine’ that we were trying to launch. While communing with us over the predictable herbal preparations, the Soft Machine founding legend issued an open information for us to come and stay at his Bananamoon Observatory in Mallorca. The lameness of my response echoes down the decades to haunt me, to wit: “Thanks Mr Allen… but I’ve got to stay in England and do my A Levels!” Too lame to be a freak? The derisive catcalls that followed me around the council estate on which I grew up left me in no doubt that I was indeed A Freak, baby.
Other interpretations are, of course, possible. Phil Smee coined the term ‘freakbeat’ in the Eighties to cover those bands and records that bridged the gap between Sixties Mod / R’n’B culture and Psych (as opposed to those who just crashed fearlessly across that divide, notably The Moody Blues.) Although applied twenty years after the event, Smee’s taxonomical turn nicely encapsulates a nano-era in which bands eagerly seized upon the trappings of Psychedelia while their lyrics continued to flatline in a furrow of “my baby done me wrong” banality, the tipping point into full-blown Psych probably coming with The Who’s I Can See For Miles in (when else?) 1967.
In his essay introducing the collection under consideration here, David Wells stakes his own claim for the “F” word, identififying the years ’68-’72 as a period when the inhabitants of the UK’s ‘teenage wasteland’ (again, the spectre of Townshend) turned away from the technical virtuosity and flowery lyrical concerns of Psych and its chromosonally damaged offspring Prog towards a rawer sound and more ‘street’ attitude that served as the precursor to Punk. It’s not a thesis that stands up to serious (or even cursory) scrutiny. Wells regurgitates the old chestnut that Prog “encourage(d) the listener to embrace their inner Hobbit” but anyone keen on Tolkien in their lyrics would be better advised to stick to their Led Zeppelin and Leonard Nimoy albums. The closest anything in the Prog canon actually gets to that kind of thing is on King Crimson’s debut, i.e. not very close at all. Sure, The Court Of The Crimson King is populated by black queens, purple pipers and yellow jesters but lyricist Pete Sinfield’s fairy tales are distinctly grim and dystopian, as anybody who’s bothered to listen to the album will be only to well aware… even those that haven’t might well be tipped off by the florid (flayed?) screaming face on the album’s iconic cover.
The other cliche with which I take issue in Mr Wells’ scheme of things is his insistence on assigning value to these tracks in accordance with how much they fit the bill as some kind of spiritual precursor of Punk. Now I’m not a great enthusiast for Punk, but even those who are would probably acknowledge that it was a pretty short-lived phenomenon and to me this approach seems to make about as much sense as scouring every musical manifestation from JS Bach to The Beatles for clues to the imminence of … The Tottenham Sound… Power Pop… or Hi-NRG. Contemplating the chops of The Yardbirds, Deep Purple, Fleetwood Mac, The Move or even Uriah Heep (all represented herein), are we to assume that these guys spent all those years practising their scales and paying their dues in the hope that one day people would be inspired by their efforts to put safety pins through their noses and swear at Bill Grundy? I just don’t buy it.
When not preoccupied wit the procrustean task of fitting an unruly collection of bands to a proto-Punk grid mat, Wells manages to fill the rest of this set’s 36 page booklet with useful pen portraits of the participants… and what an eclectic bunch they are, from the aforementioned heavies (in both musical and commercial terms) to one hit wonders such as The Gurvitz brothers’ Gun (whose Race With The Devil invokes Cream and The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, topped off with an infuriatingly irresistible ear worm of a riff), to a bunch of artists who, for want of better luck / attitude / management / whatever, could have been contenders (Stray, Skid Row, Stack Waddy) and a healthy smattering Ladbroke of Grove scenesters (The Deviants, Pink Fairies, Edgar Broughton Band, Hawkwind in an early guise as Hawkwind Zoo) who would probably have regarded commercial success as a badge of sell-out shame. Competing for space in this oral wash of fuzz and wah-wah are venerable blues men discovering acid (Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Tony McPhee’s Groundhogs, Rory Gallagher’s Taste) or belatedly trying to ride Clapton’s coat tails into the power trio format (Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack.) Tony Iommi, rather than Clapton, is the presiding avatar for much of the music herein, though keeping such down-tuned rifforamas from collapsing into mogadon monotony is self-evidently no mean feat. Apocalypse by Barnabas emerges as my favourite sub-Sabs grinder in this collection… more than a hint of War Pigs in that one. Edgar Broughton’s Love In The Rain appropriates a purple passage from Purple Haze and pummels it into the ground and The Kult’s Occult is a blatant Foxy Lady rip-off; meanwhile Writing On The Wall’s singer trots out his best Roger Chapman impersonation on Bogeyman, a party piece that Peter Gabriel would parlay into far greater artistic and commercial success. Falling by The Iron Maiden (note the ‘The’) even incorporates a shot of Bouree in E Minor though I imagine they learned it from Jethro Tull rather than going back to Bach.
I’m A Freak, Baby’s trawl through a tumultuous time period inevitably yields equal doses of the good, the bad and the indifferent. I was particularly taken with Blonde On Blonde’s Heart Without A Home and Charge’s Rock My Soul, which just steams along, cheerfully out-Gallaghering Rory Gallagher. The Mooche’s Hot Smoke And Sassafras almost lives up to its wonderful title. There’s plenty of other stuff that might inspire you to get digging though those crates (or at least googling some names) and a handful of previously unreleased cuts from the likes of The Kult, Hellmet and The Phoenix. Wells’ potted biog of Sweet Slag (represented here by the wonderfully titled Twisted Trip Woman) is particularly poignant… bandleader and sometime Kink Mick Wright subsequently turned to refuse collection to earn his bread, ultimately rising to the position of Head Of Waste Management at Luton Borough Council. Even an ‘A’ level-sitting sell out like me can dig what a cop out that is! Bummer…