Various – Once Upon A Time In The West MidlandsVarious: Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands – album review

Grapefruit

3CD/DL

Out Now

Subtitled “The Bostin’ Sounds Of Brumrock 1966-1974”, this new boxset takes us from the formative years of the sixties music scene in the West Midlands and follows it all the way through to the hard rock/metal that the area is still closely associated with today. Along this route the compilers take in sounds from The Moody Blues, The Move, Slade, Judas Priest and many others. Ian Canty gets down to the Brum beat sound…

The West Midlands biggest impact in popular music was arguably made with the primal hard rock that oozed from it malevolently at the end of the 1960s. Birmingham band Black Sabbath (not featured here sadly) headed up this new, truly brutal rock & roll form and they still cast a long shadow over fifty years on from their first recordings. However a lot happened in the area before their breakthrough. There was a lively beat scene with big names like The Moody Blues and The Spencer Davis Group scoring hit singles and slightly later The Move were one of the brightest acts to dabble in the initial outburst of psychedelic pop. After Sabbath made their mark Black Country dynamos Slade, having endured years of hard slog as The ‘N’ Betweens (who provide the second track on this set, a pounding 1966 cover of Otis Redding’s Security) and Ambrose Slade, stormed the UK charts with a host of singalong anthems that were practically peerless.

All the way through the years lots of other talent bubbled under and much of it is documented on this new set Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands, which takes us from 1966 to the mid-1970s. In just eight years a whole bundle of change took place and this is reflected in what is a diverse selection. We begin in 1966 with feisty freakbeat of I Must Be Mad by the oddly monikered Craig. The name had been foisted on The King Bees by their manager, the infamous Larry Page. They didn’t last long, but this tune is a zinger and a young Carl Palmer, behind the traps for the band, was launched by it to a highly successful drumming career.

The Doc Thomas Group, represented by a cover of the Fontella Bass hit Rescue Me, would a couple of years and a few line up changes later become Mott The Hoople. The early, Denny Laine-led version of The Moody Blues impress with their manic shifts of emphasis on the psych r&b of Life’s Not Life and some smooth keyboards endow On The Beach, by West Brom’s The Extreem’s, with an irrepressible bounce. A neat Baby Get Your Head Screwed On by Double Feature combines soul drive with orchestration to furnish us with a striking result and the band included in their number future UB40 producer Bob Lamb. Even though The Move’s I Can Hear The Grass Grow was a big hit single, its all-round excellence resounds down the years, making its inclusion more than necessary.

A self-penned On Time by Capitol Systems, possesses a similar swirling organ sound to Procul Harum. This adds well to what is a touching pop sike nugget. Idle Race’s Imposters Of Life’s Magazine, an early Jeff Lynne composition, balances rock hammer and paisley pop leanings very sharply and Traffic were right up there, as far as psychedelic front runners in the area were concerned. Their yearning No Face, No Name, No Number is a breeze, with Steve Winwood’s former band The Spencer Davis Group coping with his absence admirably on the stylish and speedy organ stomper Moonshine which comes next.

Young Blood were like Craig, in the fact that they included a promising drummer who would go onto big things in their ranks. In this case it was Cozy Powell, who plays on the slightly daft but still fun Don’t Leave Me In The Dark and Ace The Face Kefford, no longer part of The Move due to mental health problems brought on by LSD, is present coming up with the goods in a solo mode on an impressive Trouble In The Air. Christine Perfect aka McVie, performing as part of Chicken Shack, sings coolly on her own composition When The Train Comes Back and Simon’s Secrets’ near-bubblegum, handclaps and fuzz-enhanced I Know What Her Name Is could certainly have been a hit, had it been released at the time. The band was headed up by Clifford T. Ward, later to carve out a career as a noted singer songwriter.

Velvet Fogg, one of the bands Tony Iommi’s joined briefly pre-Black Sabbath, give us the enchanting, expansive and unusual Yellow Cave Woman and although The Locomotive started out as a bluebeat band, by the time of the trippy and strange twists of Mr Armageddon they offered up a very different proposition indeed. The Ugly’s, an early sighting of Brum legend Steve Gibbons, end this first disc with the stately pop/rock of I’ve Seen The Light. It is a collection filled with invention and craft, plus a plethora of evidence to suggest the West Midlands was capable of turning out enough talent in the second half of the 1960s to rival anywhere else in the country.

Disc Two of Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands deals with 1969 and 1970, when psychedelia began to give way to a progressive rock sound in its infancy. As we start out, the change was only to be detected gradually on the stoned, soulful roll of Daughter Of The Sun by The Ace Kefford Stand or the alternately tense and absurd Roundabout by The Montanas. The World Of Oz do achieve a different sound, successfully marrying an Eastern drum pattern to wah wah guitar on Like A Tear and Tea And Sympathy give us the charming folk pop of Boredom, a Procul Harum number which of course has nothing to do with Buzzcocks song of the same name.

Gordon Jackson, not the actor from The Professionals but an ex-member of Deep Feeling (who featured on disc one of this set), gives us The Journey, which manages to be dreamlike, beguiling and purposeful too. Big Bear Folly by the trio Bakerloo is the first sign of the kind of late 1960s blues riffing that would inevitably lead to heavy metal and the flowing soul pop of Candy by Cinnamon Quill, who were previously known by the “none more garage” name of The Vacant Lots, is a real winner. The sparkling Imaginations by Revolver put this listener straight to proto-power pop heaven, it is amazing to think this absolute pearl was thrown away as a b side.

The chilled groove of A Modern Day Fairy Tale by Galliard, a spin-off of disc one’s Craig, is beautiful to hear and Cathedral’s snappy It’s A Hard Way unfortunately went unissued at the time, with the notorious Don Arden managing them into extinction. Trapeze included Glenn Hughes, later of rock behemoths Deep Purple, but their song Suicide is an odd but pleasing mix of high voices and keyboard-heavy instrumental hammer.

Featuring A World Of Oz alumni, quartet Kansas Hook fare well on a heady Dance In The Smoke and the long and careful glide of Donna, by Bachdenkel, aptly demonstrates that at this stage prog was now making its presence firmly felt. For the final track on this platter we go back to The Ace Kefford Stand again, though by the time of their Zombies cover Time Of The Season Ace himself was long gone left and the band had adopted the rather clumsy title of Big Bertha. It’s a pretty convincing effort anyway with some extended guitar soloing.

The final part of this boxset opens in the 1970s, when the harder sort of rock began to take centre stage. Despite that, it starts with the easy-going groove of She Said Yes by Fable, another band that Larry Page saw fit to change the name of. Mike Sheridan fronted The Nightriders, who were a key Birmingham beat act that at times numbered Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne in their ranks. But he’s featured here as part of a duo with Rick Price on clever and imaginative pop tune Lamp Lighter Man.

Slade were donning skinhead garb at the time of their track here One Way Hotel from the Play It Loud album. It’s a mid-paced wonder that shows their instincts for accessible, high energy music were already finely tuned. The skin image came by from their manager Chas Chandler, in order to cash in on a craze that was just then beginning to die out. Though they did not feel natural clad in the boots and braces style, eventually it served them well in establishing the band as a no-nonsense, hard as nails rock & roll outfit.

The previously unreleased We’re Going To Change All This is a straightforward but nice slice of pop rock from Fred’s Box, who were made up of former members of Paradox and The Ugly’s. People, by Salamander, is a gentle post-psych gem too. Steve Gibbons was getting his solo work underway with his 1971 album Short Stories and its most arresting cut Brown Girl is included here. Possessed’s story had a tragic ending, when the two mainstays of the band Mick Reeves and Vernon Pereira were killed in a motor accident in 1976. Their tune Disheartened And Disillusioned is a fine, pounding rocker with some fiery fretwork that showed great talent.

Two thirds of the way through this disc the listener comes to a bit of a Roy Wood cavalcade, with Wizzard’s initial hit single/reimagining 50s American rock & roll as glam Ball Park Incident, The Electric Light Orchestra’s fiddle pyrotechnics version of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven and the scrumptiously strange solo single Dear Elaine all cropping up. Fairfield Ski’s Circus is a curious but loveable mixture of glam, prog pop and psychedelia and Bedlam’s rocking The Beast firmly sets itself in riff-heavy, bonehead-banging nirvana. In the last straight of this set we get an early earful of Judas Priest on the solid Rocka Rolla and the collection signs off with Blackfoot Sue’s ebullient and wry Bye Bye Birmingham, which provides a fitting finale.

Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands does a very good job of taking the uninitiated through the trip that pop music of the region made during the eight years documented. It is quite a journey, full of interest and above all, great tunes. Given that The Move and their various off-shoots pepper this set, it is only right they stare out resplendently attired on the front cover photo and of course you get the fine detail on all the outfits and singers in the various pen pictures included in the accompanying booklet.

The music that is contained herein is, for the greater part, engrossing and encompasses a fair amount of material that was new to me. The West Midlands has always seemed to occupy somewhat of a dowdy position in the music scene for some reason. That is something this collection proves as being quite unfair – the industrial middle of England clearly had so much to offer and it all comes vividly to life on One Upon A Time In The West Midlands.

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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