Medicine Head – New Bottles Old Medicine (50th Anniversary Edition): Album Review

Stage buskers’ lo-fi debut masterpiece gets the deluxe repackage treatment. New Bottles Old Medicine by Medicine Head is fifty.

Release Date:  20th November 2020

Label: Cherry Red Records

Formats: 2CD

For a short while, back in the heady 1970s, Medicine Head threatened to defy all logic as applicable to the limits of what can be achieved with an acoustic guitar, a bass drum, a hi-hat, a harmonica, a Jew’s harp, a mouthbow and a pretty special set of vocal chords. They almost became big stars.  In June 1973, they made the number three spot in the UK singles chart with their never-to-be-forgotten One And One Is One and enjoyed further singles chart success in 1974 with Rising Sun and Slip And Slide. 

For most of their career, the band was a duo, comprising vocalist John Fiddler, who also played guitar, piano and drums (nearly all at the same time…) and Peter Hope-Evans who chipped in with the harmonica, Jew’s Harp and mouthbow.  As can be imagined, they made a unique sound (described on one of the tracks on this album as “On-stage busking(!)”) and their live shows were really something to behold.

The band was discovered by John Peel, who signed them to his Dandelion record label in 1969, reportedly following John Lennon’s recommendation, and who then went on to promote them via his BBC radio shows.  In 1970, they released their debut album, Old Bottles New Medicine, an album that showcased the full range of the band’s repertoire, from the raw, bluesy favourites of their live shows to the more introspective, heartfelt, melodic songs that John Fiddler was starting to write.  Long considered a classic of its era, Old Bottles New Medicine is an album that has exerted a lasting influence, as acknowledged by such luminaries as Bobby Gillespie, Nico, Joe Perry and Jack White.

Cherry Red Records have done an exceptional job in repackaging the album for its 50th Anniversary re-release.  The 2CD set includes the original classic album, plus a disc containing the A and B sides of the first three singles, a demo recording, a couple of radio sessions and a string of stunning live cuts, some of which appear on CD for the first time.  The pack also includes an extensive essay by Medicine Head aficionado Brian Banks, which includes interviews with the band’s members, so this is quite an offering!

As for the music. Well, a reissue of the original album is certainly long overdue and heartily welcomed.  It’s the epitome of a lo-fi recording – the songs were committed to tape in a single two-hour session – but that’s a key aspect of the album’s charm.  The band’s simple approach and rudimentary instrumentation is showcased to wonderful effect and it’s easy to understand why such a number of aspirant musicians (myself included) decided to pick up guitar or bash away on a Jew’s harp until their mouths bled on the back of the example set here. 

Ooee Baby, Do It Now, Fire Under The Mountain, Crazy ‘Bout You Baby and album closer Walkin’ Blues are all examples of 12-bar blues in that genre’s most stripped-down and rawest form.  Choppy, distorted guitar, raucous drums and howling harmonica provide the foundation for John’s truly authentic Trent Valley blues vocals (I’m amazed to be reminded how similar his vocals sound to those of Peter Green on the early Fleetwood Mac albums!)  However, it’s the softer songs that really catch the ear and Old Bottles New Medicine has a number of tracks that showcase what was to become the Medicine Head ‘sound’ in its embryonic form – notably Home’s Odessey, Oh My Heart To Peace, Two Men Now and the truly outstanding Next Time The Sun Comes Round.

Perhaps the centre-piece of the original album is the nine minutes of contemplative blues that constitute Goin’ Home.  It’s a far-cleaner sounding track than the other blues offerings on the album and features one of John’s strongest vocal performances and some tasteful, soulful harp playing from Peter.  And there’s even a fumble, about two and a half minutes in, that has thoughtfully been left in the cut and which adds charm and humour to a lovely piece of music.

But, as is often the case on a re-release of this nature, it is perhaps the second disc of the set that really catches the imagination.  The first six tracks are the As and B sides of the band’s first three singles: 1968’s His Guiding Hand, 1970’s Coast to Coast (And Shore to Shore) and 1971’s (And the) Pictures in the Sky, a disc that reached number twenty-two in the singles chart and almost gave the band their big breakthrough, two years earlier than it actually happened. 

(And The) Pictures In The Sky represents the direction in which the band had started to move after their early adventures in lo-fi. Its production is clear and crisp and the structure of the song is not dissimilar to the sound that was emerging from another former folk duo at about the same time which was starting to take its listeners away from Elfland to turn them into Electric Warrior.  A home demo of the song (also included in this collection) certainly marks a significant step forward in the band’s approach.

A sequence of recordings salvaged from a 1970 BBC Session shows how the band was developing the more melodic style of the softer songs on Old Bottles New Medicine and the versions of His Guiding Hand, Home’s Odyssey and Two Men Now, all taken from that session are interesting for this reason. Unfortunately, the sound quality on these tracks is pretty poor and I doubt that anyone other than the most dedicated fans will wish to hear them too often.  That issue is overcome on the two tracks (Sing With A Drum and To Train Time) taken from a 1970 Top Gear radio session, on which the band is at its tough, bluesy and exciting live best.  Things get even better with the live version of Pictures In The Sky from a 1971 John Peel concert where Fiddler urges and cajoles the audience and the enjoyment of both audience and band is palpable.

Which leads us handily to the real high point of CD2 and arguably, the high point of the entire package. The live cuts from concerts in St Anne’s and London that form a substantial portion of the disc.  The London tracks are taken from the Live At The Marquee 1975 album (actually released in 2001) and include yet another (the 4th) version of Pictures In The Sky before moving on to five versions of songs from Old Bottles New Medicine: Two Men Now, Home’s Odyssey, Oh My Heart To Peace, His Guiding Hand and Walkin’ Blues.  The quality of the recording is excellent. John works the crowd wonderfully and it’s great to hear how the band had matured in the years since their first tentative recording steps.

Medicine Head folded in 1977.  John went on to work with British Lions (along with Mott the Hoople’s Morgan Fisher, Dale Griffin and Overend Watts) and Box Of Frogs (a collective formed by ex-Yardbirds Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith and Jim McCarty which has featured, amongst others, Ian Dury, Roger Chapman, Rory Gallagher, Steve Hackett and Jimmy Page).  He has released a string of solo albums and continues to record. His latest single, Warriors Of Love has just been released by Singsong Music/Living Room Records.  Peter has also had an extensive post-Medicine Head career and has appeared on albums by Pete Townshend, The Dance Band and more recently, Noah Francis.

If you ever saw Medicine Head live, or if you recall their albums and singles from those glorious days of the early 70s, this is an album that you will love.  Thank You Cherry Red Records!

Watch Medicine Head perform Pictures in the Sky in 1971 here:

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