Babe Ruth – Darker Than Blue: The Harvest Years 1972-1975: Album Review

The rock band Babe Ruth, formed in the 1970s, feature in a long overdue celebration of their remarkable musical style and contribution. The set brings together, in box set format, their three albums for the Harvest record label.

Release date: Available now

Label: Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records

Format: 3 CD Box Set

Babe Ruth was formed in 1970 and went on to make three impressive albums and several singles, for the Harvest record label. Their musical style was an engaging blend of hard rock, soul, and progressive and jazz rock, marked out by Alan Shacklock’s flammable guitar work, and arranging skills, and Janita ‘Jenny’ Haan’s powerful soaring vocals. They were a remarkable band in many ways, that deserved considerably more recognition, for what was a unique and expansive musical style. This very welcome new release is a long overdue celebration of their music.

The three CD box set, released by Esoteric Recordings and Cherry Red Records, is presented in a nice clamshell box, and collects the band’s three Harvest albums: First Base; Amar Caballero; and Babe Ruth; together with their singles for Harvest. 

First Base was their stunning 1972 debut album. Opening track Wells Fargo, is a stomping rock song, with some splendid soul aspects, supplied by Brent Carter’s saxes. The rhythm section of Dick Powell on drums and bassist Dave Hewitt adds some thumping propulsion to the song, while Gaspar Lawal adds some subtle rhythmic accents on the congas. Add into the mix, Alan Shacklock’s staccato guitar riff and Janita Haan’s superb soulful vocal, and you have the complete rock classic. The liquid guitar solo is the icing on the cake of this striking album opener. 

The following track, The Runaways, begins with Dave Punshon’s gentle piano chords and Harry Mier’s undulating oboe. Janita Haan’s jazz like vocal phrases float over a haunting and elegiac cello quartet. The instrumental section melds the cello’s, with cymbal driven percussion, and Dave Punshon’s quite beautiful piano refrain, which he later punctuates with some sparkling solo playing. This is seven minutes plus of gorgeous music, with the oboe and string arrangements put together by the very talented Alan Shacklock.

Then we move onto Babe Ruth’s dazzling interpretation of the Frank Zappa classic King Kong, originally to be heard in multiple versions on The Mothers of Invention, Uncle Meat album. While respectfully retaining many of the elements in Zappa’s original, it adds in a jazz rock sheen, with the guitar and electric piano to the fore, and a driving blues backbeat. The piano and guitar solos are fast and inventive. It is a very good interpretation indeed. Black Dog is another inventive cover, this time of a Jesse Winchester song, where Janita Haan’s vocal becomes like another solo instrument in the band, spiralling upwards and driving the song forward.  Dave Punshon delivers another stunning piano solo, that is full of syncopated lush melodies. 

The Mexican, tells the story of The Alamo, from the Mexican soldier’s perspective, and includes an excerpt from Ennio Morricone’s For A Few Dollar’s More. It has a cool dance beat and was re-recorded in 1984 by John “Jellybean’ Benitez, with Janita Haan providing new vocals, and becoming a dancefloor hit in the process. The final track on the album, Joker, has the band returning to the hard rocking style of Wells Fargo, accompanied by Alan Shacklock’s most stinging guitar workout. 

Across the tracks on this debut album, Babe Ruth demonstrated a wide range of musical reference points, strong songwriting and interpretive musical skills, aligned with great musicianship, and Janita Haan’s incredible vocal range. It is a rock classic that deserves to be heard and appreciated much more than it was on its release in 1972, and hence the space given to reflecting on its merits in this review.  

The sophomore follow-up album, Amar Caballero, is of similar musical range and richness. By this time the line-up had changed a little, with Ed Spevock coming in on drums, and Chris Holmes playing keyboards on part of the album.  At the core of the album is the three-part title track. The first section, El Caballero de la Reina Isabella, was written by Janita Haan and Alan Shacklock, and has a very evocative lyric by Janita Haan, which is sung with a wonderfully poetical and storytelling voice. Alan Shacklock’s Hombre de la Guitarra section, includes some very fast-paced classical guitar playing, underpinned by Ed Spevock and Gaspar Lawal’s, inspirational drums and conga shuffle.  The final section, El Testament De ‘Amelia, is based on Miguel Llobet’s arrangement of this traditional song. Alan Shacklock’s playing has a gentle rising and falling, creating a meditative and open soundstage. 

Other key album highlights include Broken Cloud, cowritten by Alan Shacklock and Janita Haan. It is a quite beautiful ballad, orchestrated with horns and strings by Alan Shacklock. Janita Haan’s voice here is it at its very best, sometimes whispered, and understated, and at other times ascending with incredible power. A raucous cover of the Capitols classic rhythm and blues track, Cool Jerk, is led by Ed Spevock’s meticulous funk-driven drumming. Janita Haan’s delivery of the lead and backing vocals, aligned with the rolling piano accompaniment of Dave Punshon, creates a fantastic soulful performance. 

The final album in this set, and the final Babe Ruth album before Alan Shacklock departed the band, is the self-titled Babe Ruth. Opening song Dancer has something of the sound of Uriah Heep, reflected in the anthemic melding of the guitar and keyboards, with a great heavy rock feel. It must have sounded amazing live.  

A progressive rock take on Ennio Morricone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, allows space for Alan Shacklock’s guitar and Dave Hewitt’s snapping bass to stretch out, and offer a fresh perspective on this classic theme music. In contrast, the melancholy Turquoise, written by Janita Haan and bassist Dave Hewitt, has a folk ambience, and a set of poignant descriptive lyrics.

Alan Shacklock’s, The Duchess of Orleans, is the final and centrepiece track, on the album. It is an imposing ballad on a grand scale, with the use of the phraseology of Charles Dickens, adding a richness to the storytelling in the lyrics. Janita Haan’s perfectly pitched vocal is full of pathos, and Alan Shacklock’s mid-song guitar break rings out with emotion.   

Babe Ruth, as I hope this review has shown, was a band capable of delivering something very special musically, as evidenced across these three albums.  This great box set fully represents the band’s musical excellence, and also contains an in-depth essay on the band’s history by Steve Pilkington, with contributions from Alan Shacklock and Janita Haan. 

Here is a video of Babe Ruth performing Wells Fargo:

There is a Babe Ruth Facebook page: Facebook

You can find out more about Cherry Red Records releases here: Website / Facebook

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1 reply »

  1. So happy to see this box set. Other than First Base, their albums may have only been released on CD by Japanese labels. Haven’t yet heard the Esoteric mixes, but I’m hoping the sound is good. Three albums from the same band, yet all three so different and unique from any other bands at the time. It’s too bad they didn’t have a bit more success to keep Alan on board and put out a few more albums, with Alan’s ever-increasing production skills. But they’re a band with too much talent to continue on with only marginal sales.

    Jenny Haan is my favorite singer in rock/popular music. So versatile and dynamic, and such a strong voice; can’t think of any better, except Shirley Bassey in her day. Turquoise and Duchess of Orleans would be Jenny’s highlight (“Your rags and my riches won’t do!”). Dave Hewitt and Ed Spevock are such a solid rhythm section. Ed has some sort of blues shuffle going on that I’ve never quite figured out. Dave Punshon’s keyboards and Hewitt’s solo bass sort of kick off the whole experiment with Wells Fargo.

    I suppose Amar Caballero may be the weaker of the albums, lacking a hit-like tune or two, but at the same time it has some of their most evocative songs with the suite that wraps up the album. But given the varying diversity across the albums, I sort of think of the collection of the three as a whole project, of sorts. That’s why it’s nice seeing the three as a box set. I doubt there will ever be a major label that releases material like Babe Ruth once again. Of course, back in the 70s there was a multitude of smaller labels.

    Had such a blast seeing them in Milwaukee in 2014. Never imagined that would happen. The thing is, Babe Ruth had some regional success in the US northeast and Canada. I heard them on the radio quite often. Private Number, with its synthesizer bit comes to mind. I’ve heard the original version a few times, but for me Babe Ruth’s was the definitive version.

    Thanks for the review.

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