July – The Complete Recordings
Released 31 July 2020
Six disc boxset that includes everything recorded by psychedelic band July, including their first album in both stereo and mono versions, a compilation of demos from before their debut entitled The Second Of July and the reconvened group’s previously unissued recordings in the 21st century…Ian Canty hears how a psychedelic flop turned to gold over a 30 year gestation period…
In the swinging late 1960s the notion that July, who lasted less than a couple of years in their original incarnation, would be the subject of a 6 disc collection 40 years later on would have been laughable at best. They were shunned when their album was cruelly dismissed in 1968, just as the psychedelic surge began to falter. A diffuse reception in the music press, with one critic even calling it the worst album ever and a waste of vinyl, didn’t help one bit. With that, July were yesterday’s news almost as soon as they arrived.
The record didn’t bother the charts and after a gimmicky non-album single Hello, Who’s There? they ceased operations. But the band and LP would not die, with the latter gradually, but crucially, clawing its way to acclaim in retrospect as a vinyl “buried treasure” over the passing of the years. In response to this backdated respect and in some pretty unlikely circumstances, 40 years later, July reformed. In the 21st century they recorded and gigged to a very favourable response, with the songs from that derided debut being rapturously received by those present.
The crucial pairing of Tom Newman and Peter Cook first came together in a band called the Dreamers. Like a lot of musically minded youngsters in the UK in the early 60s, they were in the thrall of the Shadows, but as the decade continued they were naturally drawn towards the beat sound. They changed the name of the group to the Tomcats and were joined in this initial version of the band by the rhythm section of Alan James and Chris Jackson (this exact configuration would crop up again in 2009 as the reformed July). Unfortunately this line-up split in 1965 with Cook dropping out. But an amended version of the band, one that featured members of Ealing rival band Second Thoughts Tony Duhig and John Field, had a great deal of success in Spain as Los Tomcats.
Newman reconnected with Cook at the dawn of the psychedelic area, as the Tomcats returned to the UK. The influence of the Beatles and goings on at the UFO Club on Tottenham Court Road loomed large in their compositions. Adding Cook to the existing Tomcats line-up, the band began to rehearse this new material the Newman/Cook team had assembled. The Tomcats were signed by Spencer Davis’ management agency and this lead to a deal with Major Minor, an Irish record company label distributed through the larger Decca organisation. Around the time of the album, the band was retitled the band July to move away from the now dated beat music connotations of the Tomcats name. Cook was manoeuvred out from the LP sessions by Field, if the sleeve note is accurate. His songs were still used and he appears to have only remained as part of the band as a sort of Brian Wilson-style song-smith figure.
The self-titled debut album, in mono and stereo takes, take up the first two discs of this set. I have to say the mono version edges it for me, it appears just that bit sharper. Any way you hear this record though, it’s still a classic of the UK psychedelic era, pristinely assembled and charmingly naive. July starts off with two excellent offerings in My Clown and Dandelion Seeds, which were also issued together as the two sides of the first July single. They may take a fair bit from the Beatles and Syd Barrett in terms influence at times, but the overall effect is marvellous. There’s a solid beat base to the latter which give their more outré ideas the ideal jumping off point. This is something that must have been honed to perfection in the slog of the Tomcats years.
The acoustic undercurrent to Hallo To Me adds a smart undertone to a Pink Floyd-alike tune and both You Missed It All and The Way possess some prime freaky guitar work and are delightfully trippy. To Be Free also takes on the then-fashionable Eastern sitar/drones, but incorporates them into a very accessible pop context. July never lost sight of the need for a cracking melody, as on Chris Jackson’s up-tempo and rocky Crying Is For Writers. The spritely Friendly Man has some great racing bongos and A Bird Lived ends the long player in a very cool, stop start way.
The first disc, the mono take, adds the single versions of My Clown, Dandelion Seeds and The Way, plus that non album single Hello, Who’s There?, which takes the Small Faces’ more “Cor Blimey” efforts as a starting point. As a rule July the album is beautifully arranged, but the “forced stereo” version that Epic made for America met with band disapproval and instead a “newly-enhanced” stereo mix is the one included here as disc two.
Styles changed so quickly in the 1960s, so that something that was cool and cutting edge six months prior would quickly become hopeless outdated. By 1968 UK psychedelia it its purest form was spent and July paid the price with the album disappearing without making a mark. The band were forced to come up with hit single material which resulted in the so-so Hello Who’s There? single. When that suffered exactly the same fate as the LP and My Clown, July came to a halt. James left, but the trio of Cook, Newman and Jackson formed a new group under the Tomcats name, playing live in the early 1970s.
After the new Tomcats foundered Tom Newman carved out a highly successful career as a producer, helming a diverse selection of records from Hatfield And The North’s debut album to Cast Of Thousands by the Adverts. His most fruitful collaboration though was with Michael Oldfield, for who he produced the smash hit Tubular Bells LP. Concurrently to his production work he also conducted his own solo career, issuing a number of LPs from 1975 to 2015.
Whilst this was happening, the July legend was beginning to gather steam. Critical re-appraisal put their album firmly up there with the best of the original psychedelic scene and psych crate diggers rattled around the record fairs and second-hand shops, hoping to net a mint copy now worth a small fortune. Naturally enough, collectors were also interested if there was any further July material apart from the album itself. In the mid-90s Tom Newman discovered some demo tapes the Tomcats/July had cut just prior to the debut LP. Small modifications were added and, cashing in on this upswing of interest, the album The Second Of July was released in 1995. This makes up the third disc of this set.
This selection gives us some “unissued at the time” tracks, plus simpler versions of the album material. The Stamping Machine has some sharp and acidic guitar blasts and the streamlined version here of A Bird Lived is very agreeable too. It’s more in a more straight-ahead, 60s pop/rock mode which really helps it swing. Among the non-LP tracks Look At Her is a lovely light piece of folk pop sike and I See a highly-phased, fast paced gem. The Girl In The Cafe again mines Pink Floyd’s more pop elements to good effect and the yelled vocal/heavy guitar of You See Me, I See You form a formidable combo. There’s a nice solitary feel to on the strum of Move On Sweet Flower and an early but very cool cut of Hallo To Me ends this set nicely.
After the building momentum of the original July album and The Second Of July, the line-up of Newman, Cook, Jackson and James reunited in in 2009. Looking to do something more than just play their old material, they duly set down a new album. Though it’s not necessarily a bad recording I can certainly see why Temporal Anomaly, disc four of this set, has remained unissued. Completed as a prospective Tomcats project, this record overall comes over more in a standard pop/rock sound.
They do manage on a few occasions the kind of light trippy touch of the July album, perhaps best on the more measured and reflective Magical Days and Don’t Let Me Down. But elsewhere an average rock/pop sound dominates, with a bit too much sub-metal guitar soloing and riffage taking away from otherwise decent songs. Approaching cutting a new record 40 years on must have been a daunting proposition, but the sad fact about Temporal Anomaly is that it too often sounds ordinary, dragging their feet on ground where July in their 60s pomp flew. Apparently James and Jackson thought so too and Temporal Anomaly remained in can. Definitely one for the completists really, which is why it is presented here I suppose.
Many of the songs from Temporal Anomaly were re-cut for July’s official comeback record Resurrection. They were good offerings, so deserved another go at getting them right. Whilst there’s still a little bit too much of unnecessary guitar showing-off along the way, this LP gets much closer to being a convincing update of July’s original sound. Set opener Dreams prospers here with more subtle guitar work and I Like It is given a much more beneficial treatment than the bluesy setting of the version on TA. The circular chug of Can I Go Back Again pleases and King Bee manages to scoop their blues and psych roots together into a wonderful breadth of noise. The song Regeneration might be a little more rock again, but supplies a nice upbeat ending to what is a good album.
The final disc here brings us right up to date with a brand spanking new double album length July recording The Wight Album (recorded at Newman’s new studio on the IOW). This one is also being released separately on double vinyl. The pressure of following up those 60s recordings now enshrined in legend lifted, they sound far more relaxed and at ease, revealing a fully refreshed July for 2020. This is a work of depth, imagination and talent. For instance, the song Sophie is simply heart-breaking, the wavering vocal and psychedelic whirls adding joy to a poignant lyric. July embellish their tunes with little touches here and there, like the modern dance beats on The Devil Inside (which seems to have a little of the theme to Get Carter! about it) and It’s A Fine Line, plus synth washes on the odd Disco Klingon and the catchy chant of We Are The Masters. But neither undermine the attempt to put the record firmly in the same context as their debut LP all those years ago. The July spirit of the 1960s remains intact, re-energised and fortified by years of bitter experience. As if to prove the point early July song The Game is a real beaut, being recorded for the very first time after Newman vaguely remembered it during the sessions.
The Wight Album ends with a rollicking three song finish, which rivals their 60s pomp. Home would make a fine single, samples of whistles and playground noise, the band glisten and a beautiful crushed voice sings – this is a truly wonderful, multi-layered epic. Next comes Once When We Was Free, a piano driven piece of rock not unlike their original inspiration the Fabs’ later efforts and Right Place, Wrong Time’s wry lyrics play against the July legend well – this has almost a new wave sound and provides a very good conclusion to the set. The Wight Album is full of invention, good tunes and knowing words – an excellent recording for a band now over 50 years into their career.
July The Complete Recordings provides everything one would need if starting from scratch. Six CDs might seem like a lot for a band who only made a slight mark in 1968, but the mono and stereo versions of the July album are different takes of a landmark record and 2013’s Regeneration has its moments. The Wight Album is excellent and The Second Of July gives one a decent look behind the scenes at the pre-July outfit. As usual we get the band’s impressions and their history in the booklet included and the whole thing is contained in a clamshell box.
I know that some would carp at shelling out for a 6CD set for a 60s psych band who only had one LP released at the time (one that most psych buffs will probably already own) and yes, this set is one to weigh up. However the unreleased LPs Wight Album is a real goodie and Regeneration is at least worth having, so if you haven’t got The Second Of July compilation it probably is worth a go. There’s a lot of great, overlooked music here – July were certainly the real thing, UK Psychedelia at its very apex.
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All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here