Various Artists – Riding The Rock Machine: British Seventies Classic Rock: Album Review

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An alternative appraisal of those classic 70s years when many were Riding The Rock Machine – by Grapefruit Records

Release Date:  23rd April 2021

Label: Grapefruit

Formats: 3CD Clamshell boxed set

70s Classic Rock is a genre or format that we all know well.  Or do we?  Sure – we’re all very familiar with the limited repertoire of the ‘Classic’ radio stations that churn out the big hits from the big acts on repeat play, but, let’s be honest, there was a lot more to 70s rock than that.  The Who didn’t just make Won’t Get Fooled Again, for example.  Neither was Thin Lizzy’s output limited to The Boys Are Back In Town, Procol Harum’s to A Whiter Shade Of Pale, The Moody Blues’ to Nights In White Satin, Jethro Tull’s to Living in the Past, and so on.  Each of these bands carried a rich canon of excellent music, most of which was, due to its relative unfamiliarity, probably more enjoyable than the over-familiar tunes they are commonly associated with.

Furthermore, there was a whole lot more to the 70s rock than The Faces, ELO, ELP, Roxy Music, 10cc, or any of the aforementioned ‘superbands’.  Groups such as Foghat, Trapeze, Family, Sutherland Brothers and Quiver and Sad Café all walked the walk and talked the talk but, often as a result of nothing more than bad luck or unfortunate timing, never quite achieved the acclaim afforded to others.

All of these anomalies are corrected on this new compilation from Grapefruit, which takes an alternative look at the Classic Rock genre.  It still includes lots of goodies from the big hitters, but in a slightly less familiar guise. For example, The Moody Blues are represented by the excellent I’m Just a Singer In A Rock And Roll Band, The Who make the cut with Success Story from their somewhat overlooked Who By Numbers album, Thin Lizzy pitch in with the lesser known but equally exciting Jailbreak, and Jethro Tull’s contribution is the inexplicably unsuccessful single, Bungle In The Jungle, taken from 1974’s War Child.

Elsewhere, The Boston Tea Party is preferred to the ubiquitous Delilah from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Hawkwind’s well-worn Silver Machine is overlooked in favour of Quark Strangeness and Charm from their eponymous 1977 album, we get Street Life instead of Virginia Plain from Roxy Music and Strawbs chip in with My Friend Peter from their Deep Cuts album, so we are spared another exposure to Part Of The Union.  I think you probably get the picture.

But it’s perhaps with the lesser-known selections that Riding The Rock Machine gets particularly interesting.  Some of these will be familiar to anyone who was around at the time – Blackfoot Sue’s Standing In The Road, In My Own Time from Family (a personal favourite of mine) and New York Groove from Hello, for example.  70s Classic Rock is characterized by the muscular, riff-based sound that went on to dominate American FM airwave, and the selections are true to that model, even, perhaps surprisingly, Yvonne Elliman’s gritty interpretation of The Who’s I Can’t Explain. As a snapshot of what was going on within the British rock scene in the pre-punk 1970’s, I think that the compilation is a pretty inspired one.  There’s the wonderful Catch You on the Rebop from The Spencer Davis Group, back together in 1973 after a four-year layoff, the phenomenal Black Cloud from Trapeze, a song that deserves a place at rock’s top table alongside Black Dog, Baba O’Riley, Paranoid and the rest, the metal/psych of Out of Your Head from Welsh troubadours Man and the simply delightful Dream Kid from the criminally underrated Sutherland Brothers and Quiver (yes- they did do (a lot) more than just Arms Of Mary).

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A pair of flares – yesterday.

If the lesser-known treasures are still not enough for you, the collection is rounded off with a number of previously unreleased tracks from bands like Magnum, Bullfrog, The Winkies and the virtually unknown Maggot, and all that’s just scratching the surface of this tremendous voyage through the inner and outer suburbs of that great decade.  There are 59 tracks, spread over three discs – enough to take even the deepest seventies cynic right back to the land of Raleigh Chopper bikes, Spangles, Cresta pop, big floppy collars and 38” flares.  The collection comes in a lavish package, in a clamshell box and accompanied by a beautifully illustrated 40-page booklet that contains an informative introduction by Grapefruit’s Manager, David Wells, as well as detailed notes on each of the contributing bands and their selected track.  It’s a joy to behold!

Riding The Rock Machine is a nostalgia trip par excellence for anyone of my vintage, and each listener will, no doubt have his or her favourites amongst the chosen tracks.  As an indulgence, I thought I’d share my own Rock Machine Top Twenty from the three discs in this package, so, in the order that they appear on the album, here goes:

Alan Parsons Project: I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You

Perhaps better known as the Engineer on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Alan Parsons was an EMI studio technician who hooked up with session pianist Eric Woolfson to form The Alan Parsons Project.  They released 11 albums, including the successful I Robot from which this track is taken.  Featuring Lenny Zatatek on lead vocals, it’s a slice of typically clean 70s funk.

Spencer Davis Group: Catch You On The Rebop

The original Spencer Davis started to fragment when Steve Winwood left in 1967 to form Traffic.  After a number of line-up changes, they called it a day in July 1969, but they reformed in 1973 and announced their return with their album Gluggo.  Catch You On The Rebop is a track from that album, and it rolls back the years to the classic Spencer Davis sound – a wonderful chunk of white soul, built around a driving guitar riff.

Procol Harum: Robert’s Box

By 1972, Procol Harum’s original guitarist Robin Trower had left the band to commence his own, eventually stellar, solo career.  He was replaced by Mick Grabham (ex-Plastic Penny/Cochise) and the band’s course headed away from the classical/fusion style that had been their trademark, and towards the fringes of the mainstream.  Robert’s Box, taken from Procol’s 1973 Grand Hotel album is a light, bouncy and very enjoyable number, with lyrics that tell a similar story to The Beatles’ Doctor Robert.

Blackfoot Sue: Standing in the Road

A Number Four chart hit in 1972 for the band formed by Birmingham-based twin brothers Tom and David Farmer.  Very much of its time, with steam-engine-like synth sounds, a solid riff and sub-Slade vocals, but it still sounds fresh.

Trapeze: Black Cloud

A proto-metal classic from the band’s second album, Medusa (1970).  Black Cloud was also released as a single and became a staple in the sets of college-circuit bands.  Built upon a solid, compulsive riff and characterized by Mel Galley’s dramatic vocal delivery, this should have been the track that took Trapeze into the big league.  Alas, it was not to be, but what a legacy they left with this one!

Fancy: She’s Riding The Rock Machine

Fancy was a band that was put together with the specific purpose of making hits.  Comprised of session musicians, plus ex-Penthouse model, Helen Caunt, they hit paydirt in the US with their raunchy take on The Troggs’ Wild Thing.  After a shake-up in which new vocalist Annie Kavanagh replaced Helen, they hit again with their follow-up single Touch Me.  She’s Riding The Rock Machine, their third crack at the charts, was less successful, but it’s an enjoyable bit of down ‘n’ dirty funk, nonetheless.

Nazareth: This Flight Tonight

An inspired interpretation of the Joni Mitchell song.  Nazareth broke through in 1973 with their third album Razamanaz, partially on the back of hit single Broken Down Angel.  Their take of This Flight Tonight is solid and heavy and driven along by Manny Charlton’s galloping guitar riff.  Excellent!

Man: Out of Your Head

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Man – Psychedelic Welshmen

Often cited as “The closest thing that Britain has produced to a West Coast band,” Welsh rockers, Man built a tight, loyal following in the UK without ever threatening to break through to the big time.  Out of Your Head packs a rock-fisted punch, slightly softened by a tasty psychedelic dressing.  Taken from the band’s 1976 album, The Welsh Connection and issued as a single, it was, almost unbelievably, nominated as Single of the Week by Radio One DJ Johnny Walker.  That wasn’t enough to spur it into the charts, though!

Curved Air: U.H.F

Taken from the splendid 1973 album Air Cut (recently reissued by Cherry Red affiliate label Esoteric as part of the magnificent 1970-1973 Albums boxset).  Curved Air had lost founder members Darryl Way and Francis Monkman but had regrouped, with guitarist Kiby Gregory, drummer Jim Russel and teenage prodigy Eddie Jobson all joining the ranks to record an album that took the band in the direction of the prog mainstream. U.H.F. is a delightful, bombastic hard rocker, built upon a driving guitar riff and topped off with a typically wonderful Sonja Kristina vocal.

Mick Ronson: Only After Dark

One of the lesser-known tracks from Ronno’s debut solo album, Slaughter on 10th Avenue (1973), Only After Dark is a clean rocker, with Ronson’s trademark fuzzy riffs well supported by some crisp drumming from Aynsley Dunbar.  Stylistically, it’s a continuation of what Ronson had been up to with Bowie’s Spiders.  The song saw release as the B-side to Ronson’s somewhat insipid version of Elvis’s Love Me Tender – a shame that the sides weren’t reversed, as Only After Dark is a fine song that could have given Mick’s solo career the post-launch boost it needed.

Strider: Straddle

A strutting rocker with some tight guitar riffs and nice slide guitar work.  Strider seemed to be everywhere in the early-mid seventies; they were the support band to call upon and were festival regulars.  I must have seen them four or five times, including a memorable appearance at Buxton Festival in 1974, when they tossed their instruments into the crowd at the end of their set (I never discovered if they had members of their crew strategically placed to catch them…)  Taken from the band’s 1973 debut album, Exposed.

Maggot: Shoelace

Maggot came to national attention in early 1969 when, in their early incarnation as pop group Strawberry Jam, they won an episode of the TV talent show, Opportunity Knocks.  At the start of the seventies, they mutated into rock band Maggot and gigged around the London area.  Shoelace, one of a couple of tunes they recorded but never managed to release is tastefully psychedelic with a folk/rock flavour and features some excellent guitar work.

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Family’s Roger Chapman

Family: In My Own Time

I owe a personal vote of thanks to David Wells for including In My Own Time in this compilation.  I loved Family at the time, and I still turn out to see them whenever they reconvene, or when Roger Chapman tours his Family And Friends shows.  In My Own Time was the band’s second hit single (the majestic The Weaver’s Answer was their first) and it’s a textbook example of Family’s eclectic style that combined folk, funk, psychedelia, insightful lyrics and Chappo’s undeniably caprine vocals.  Wonderful!

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Lucky Man

The final track on ELP’s eponymous debut album and totally unlike anything else the band ever attempted.  Instead of cod-classical bombast (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) Lucky Man is pastoral folk song about a man who had everything, but who discovered that his wealth and possessions couldn’t protect him from an enemy bullet.  A hit single in North America and The Netherlands, Lucky Man is perhaps most memorable as the song that introduced the masses (including me – and I was awestruck) to the Moog synthesizer.

Atomic Rooster: Devil’s Answer

Built upon a broody organ/bass riff, Devil’s Answer was the second of a pair of hit singles for Atomic Rooster in 1971, the first being the equally broody Tomorrow Night.  The version included here is taken from the American release of their Hearing Of album, and features new member Pete French as lead vocalist, rather than guitarist John Cann who sang on the hit single version.  It was a real novelty in 1971 for ‘underground’ bands (as they were still termed) to breach the singles chart, but 1971, a Classic Year in every sense, was nevertheless a year in which Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Family, Curved Air and Jethro Tull all joined Atomic Rooster in the Top of the Pops studio.

Dana Gillespie: Get My Rocks Off

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Dana Gillespie – Sultry and Swampy

Written by satirist Shel Silverstein (author of A Boy Named Sue and the hilarious Sylvia’s Mother) Get My Rocks Off was originally recorded by Silverstein collaborators Dr. Hook.  Dana’s version is sultry, swampy and stupendous and her vocal delivery and phrasing is guaranteed to reduce any self-confident male to jelly.

Hello: New York Groove

Perhaps a slightly odd selection for an album that otherwise focusses on the more muscular end of the seventies rock spectrum, but a welcome choice, nevertheless.  I have to come clean here.  Despite being, by 1975, a committed prog and folk/rock devotee, there was something about New York Groove that struck a chord with me – I bought the single, and I loved it.  It was only later that I discovered that the song had been written by Russ Ballard, an artist I enjoyed and respected, so that made my guilty indulgence alright.

Sutherland Brothers and Quiver: Dream Kid

Emerging from the Stoke-on-Trent hopefuls, A New Generation, Scottish Brothers Gavin and Iain Sutherland went their own way and launched The Sutherland Brothers Band in 1972.  After their second album, Lifeboat (1972), the brothers got together with rock band Quiver (featuring the great Tim Renwick on guitar) to diversify their sound.  Dream Kid is the title track of the amalgamation’s first album together and was also a minor hit in early 1974.  It’s a jaunty boogie, laced with thunderous guitars and tinkly piano, and gives no indication whatsoever of the delights to follow, a couple of years later, as we fell into Mary’s Arms.

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The Sutherland Brothers – Cropredy 1987

Mott The Hoople: Ready For Love/After Light

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Babe Ruth’s Jenny Haan

A track that characterises the concept of Riding The Rock Machine.  Mott had a string of huge 70s hits, but much of their more interesting material was to be found in the depths of their album output.  Ready For Love/After Light was guitarist Mick Ralphs’ only compositional credit on the All The Young Dudes album, and it’s a cracker, as its later coverage by Bad Company was to demonstrate.

Babe Ruth: Jack O’ Lantern

Focused upon eyecatching vocalist Jenny Haan, Babe Ruth achieved more success in the US and Canada than upon their home UK territory.  Jack O’ Lantern is a slice of riff-laden heavy rock that shows us just what we missed.

I love the concept behind Riding The Rock Machine.  A focus on the less well-known aspect of seventies rock has resulted in a compilation that illustrates the breadth and sheer quality of the era’s music, brings pangs of nostalgia to ears over-fed with familiar classics and, above all, makes for a highly entertaining and enjoyable listen.  I heartily commend it!

Watch a time-capsule video of Blackfoot Sue performing their hit, Standing In The Road – a track from the compilation – here:

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