Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera – Long Nights of Summer: The Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera Anthology: Boxset Review

A massive dose of English proto-psychedelia from Elmer Gantry on the Velvet Opera Anthology.

Release Date:  22nd July 2022

Label: Grapefruit Records (A Division of Cherry Red Records)

Formats: 3CD box set

I have to admit to bit of a personal interest with this one.  Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, early pioneers of English psychedelia, had quite a cult following in Bolton during the early 1970s, thanks, perhaps, to the enthusiastic support of Derek Austin of The Bolton Iron Maiden and Rob Lewis of another of Bolton’s top bands, Five Year Shoes.  It is, perhaps, no coincidence that both of these local movers/shakers were bass players because a strong feature of EGVO’s material was the elasticated bass work of John Ford.  Indeed, my first exposure to the debut EGVO album came during a session of bass guitar tuition when Derek sat me down, played the album, and advised me to listen to what John was doing.  I listened, but – I’m afraid – replication was beyond me!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…  Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera evolved from soul/blues outfit, The Five Proud Walkers, in the mid 1960s.  The band’s formative lineup was: Richard Hudson on drums, John Ford on bass, Colin Forster on lead guitar, Jimmy Horrocks on organ and flute and Dave Terry on vocals and harmonica.  Frontman Terry was rechristened Elmer Gantry by his band colleagues after he started wearing a cape and a preacher’s hat in the style of the lead character in the Sinclair Lewis novel, Elmer Gantry – played by Burt Lancaster in the 1960 movie of the book.

The Five Proud Walkers experienced their musical epiphany at a gig at Eel Pie Island in March 1967, when they supported the nascent Pink Floyd.  Pink Floyd’s experimentation and use of electronics convinced the soulsters that the future lay in psychedelia, rather than in the blues and soul tunes that they had, hitherto, pedaled and the band abruptly changed direction.  The single, Flames, and its B-Side, Salisbury Plain, were the first fruits of their psychedelic labours and the band made their first appearance in their new guise – Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera – at The Electric Garden (later renamed Middle Earth) in Covent Garden in July 1967.  By this point, organist/flautist Horrocks had left the lineup, unhappy with the new direction, although he did appear on early recordings of Flames and Salisbury Plain. 

Flames proved popular with certain deejays – John Peel was an early champion of EGVO and they appeared on his Top Gear radio show before the band’s debut album appeared in the shops – and, encouraged by the airplay given by Peel and others to the debut single, the band released a second single, Mary Jane.   Mary Jane, featured in this collection in four formats – album track, single, and from two BBC sessions, is a delicious slice of English psychedelia, easily comparable to the likes of Arnold Layne, Hole In My Shoe and even Strawberry Fields.  But the men from the Beeb were, by this time, on their guard – they identified the drug references in the song, and it was banned from the playlists.

Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, 1968. L-R: Colin Forster; Richard Hudson; Elmer Gantry; John Ford

The debut album, simply titled Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera appeared (depending upon who you believe) in either late 1967 or early 1968, and it’s a classic.  Consisting almost entirely of original material – the only exceptions are a crazed version of Oscar Brown’s [But] I Was Cool and a chaotic snatch of the music hall favourite Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey in the medley Walter Sly Meets Bill Bailey – and, along the way, the band manage to cram in chunks of soul, pop, folk, baroque and even proto-punk on top of the pastoral English psychedelia that is the album’s default style. 

The excitement is cranked up to eleven right from the start, as Elmer introduces the band to a loud, soulful, Land of 1,000 Dances – type backing and, to be honest, it never really lets up.  I love the light, poppy Lookin’ For an Easy Life, the baroque What’s the Point of Leaving, the accessible, string-laden, Long Nights Of Summer and, particularly, the daunting Dream Starts and the rich, lush, Reactions of a Young Man – Elmer’s story of the dilemma of a young male attempting to end a romantic relationship with a much older, married, woman.  Elsewhere, Richard Hudson plays sitar on the delightfully discordant Air, a song that mixes The Incredible String Band with The Beatles and the singles, Flames and Mary Jane, make their return appearances in a slightly punkier form.  Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera was an excellent album that could, and perhaps should, have emulated the success of The Piper At The Gates of Dawn; the critics loved it, but the public was, in the main, apathetic and the album failed to sell.

Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera: The debut album

It’s the debut album that forms the bulk of Discs 1 & 2 of this new compilation.  The original stereo album is included on Disc 1, in its original running order, whilst a previously unreleased (except in promo form in the US) mono cut of the album features on Disc 2.

It’s great to see – maybe unusually for a single band/artist boxset – that the bonus tracks don’t, in this case, overstay their welcome.  The band’s first three singles and their B-Sides: Flames/Salisbury Plain, Mary Jane/Dreamy, and Volcano/A Quick ‘B’ are all on Disc 1 and, at least in most cases, they’re a revelation.  The version of Flames is more measured and controlled than the version that made the album cut, and it’s easy to see why so many bands of the day – including the nascent Led Zeppelin – chose to include it in their repertoires.  Salisbury Plain is dreamy, psychedelic and remarkably advanced for its time, Mary Jane is catchy, enjoyable and, in the best tradition of psychedelic singles, full of bits that you can go back to find after your first couple of listens and Dreamy is folky, druggy and delightful.

Volcano, EGVO’s third single has an interesting history.  The song is the work of the Howard/Blaikley songwriting partnership – the team that came up with such gems as Legend Of Xanadu, Have I The Right? And many more 60s favourites from the likes of Lulu, The Tremeloes and Petula Clark.  The band hated their recording of the song and its commercial failure of the single was one of the events to precipitate the disintegration of EGVO.  The hindsight offered by its inclusion in this new collection is actually quite generous – Volcano isn’t at all unpleasant; it’s raucous and rocky – although, in all honesty, not a patch on either Flames or Mary Jane – and, given airplay and a heavy dose of good luck, it could have been the breakthrough hit that EGVO so richly deserved.

Other gems amongst the Disc 1 bonus tracks are Talk Of The Devil, on which Elmer is on top shouty form.  It’s an excellent bluesy number, written by Eric Woolfson for a 1967 movie. And I Remember is a Five Proud Walkers leftover which is tight, poppy soulful and almost sophisticated and The Painter – a song that was considered, then rejected, as a possible Elmer Gantry solo number – gallops along in a way that reminds me of The Moodies’ Ride My Seasaw.

The Disc 2 bonus tracks are all taken from BBC Sessions, specifically the November 1967 Top Gear session in which a number of tracks from the forthcoming debut album are performed, a BBC Radio One Saturday Club performance of the Flame and Mary Jane singles, a further Top Gear appearance in April 1968, particularly notable for the band’s performance of Country Joe’s I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, a BBC Top of the Pops radio show recorded in May 1968 and another Saturday Club session in mid-1968.  Both of the latter sessions include versions of the band’s interpretation of All Along the Watchtower.

But, anyway – let’s return briefly to the Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera story.  Guitarist Colin Forster had departed the band’s ranks, even before the debut album hit the racks, and was replaced by ex-High Society man, Paul Brett.  The change didn’t really work and, in early 1969, the band’s charismatic front man, Elmer decided to leave, shortly after the less-than-spectacular performance of the Volcano single.  Johnny Joyce, who had previously worked with Ralph McTell and Beverley Martyn was invited in, the “Elmer Gantry” reference was cut from the band’s moniker and the rechristened Velvet Opera headed off in a new direction.

Velvet Opera, 1969. L-R: Hudson; Johnny Joyce; Ford; Paul Brett

The band’s new style embraced blues, folk, Country/bluegrass and early prog and the single, Anna Dance Square, included in both the album and single formats on Disc 3 of this compilation, was the first output from the new Hudson/ Ford/ Brett/ Joyce lineup.  The Velvet Opera debut album, Ride a Hustler’s Dream, appeared in September 1969 and, again, it was critically well received.  However, sales were, once again, disappointing and, by the end of 1969, Velvet Opera had suffered a terminal loss of momentum.  In early 1970, bassist John Ford left the band, followed shortly afterwards by drummer Richard Hudson.  By May of 1970, both were fully fledged Strawbs.

It’s Ride a Hustler’s Dream that provides the focus for Disc 3 of Long Hot Nights Of Summer and, perhaps surprisingly for an effort from a band that was close to facing oblivion, it’s a fine album.  There are signs of the stomping good-time folk/rock that Hudson and Ford would go on to develop as Strawbs, lots of evidence that the band members never quite left their soul roots completely behind them, some lovely slices of English whimsy and oodles of infectious tunes that stay just about on the right side of the line that divides quality rock from disposable pop.  Highlights include the loud twelve bar Statesboro Blues – apparently a John Peel favourite – it’s deep, rich production is a marked step forward from the sound of the debut album; Black Jack Davy – an adaptation of the traditional Scottish border ballad as a Mungo Jerry-like jugband stomper, and Raga – an interesting merger of Indian and Western pop styles with Richard Hudson excelling on sitar.  Warm Day in July is a particular favourite of mine – a pleasant, folky, pastoral song with some lovely flute and guitar solos, before an interesting instrumental version of Eleanor Rigby closes the original album.  McCartney’s classic is interpreted as a rocky instrumental with the melody played on acoustic and electric guitars over a backing of thudding bass and crashing drums and there’s lots of wild soloing.  You might not appreciate it from my description, but it’s actually quite a respectful version, and it’s great fun.

Velvet Opera: Ride a Hustler’s Dream

The Disc 3 bonus tracks don’t quite live up to the standard of the offerings on Discs 1 and 2, but there’s still some good stuff here…  The  Anna Dance Square single, along with its ‘B’ side, Don’t You Realise (both tracks are also on Ride a Hustler’s Dream) made me wonder whether Velvet Opera could have had a monster hit on their hands if circumstances had been only slightly different, and the recordings of Statesboro Blues and Water Wheel for a May 1970 edition of Radio One’s David Symonds Show demonstrate what a powerful band Velvet Opera were, even when the end was nigh.  It’s only when we get to the post Hudson/Ford single She Keeps Giving Me These Feelings and its ‘B’ side, There’s a Hole in My Pocket, that any sense of impending demise becomes evident.  The single is a pretty blatant tilt at chart success, somewhat reminiscent (at least to my ears) of Honeybus’s I Can’t Let Maggie Go, and the ‘B’ side isn’t much better.

After the band’s initial demise, there were a few death throes from the remaining members.  Colin Forster and Colin Bass (Ford’s replacement when he jumped ship in 1970) formed a new version of Velvet Opera with members of Tintern Abbey, but it didn’t last long.  Elmer assembled the Elmer Gantry Band, before joining the cast of Hair, then going on to work with Mick Fleetwood and The Alan Parsons Project.  He formed Stretch in 1974 with Curved Air guitarist Kirby Gregory. Stretch still perform occasionally.

Hudson and Ford were with Strawbs until early 1973, when they left to set up their eponymous outfit, Hudson Ford, with Chris Parren on keyboards, Mickey Keen on guitars and Gerry Conway on drums.  Hudson Ford made a series of albums before their dissolution in 1977 and enjoyed singles chart success with Pick Up The Pieces, which reached number 8 in the UK Chart in 1973 and follow-up, Burn Baby Burn, which reached number 15 in 1974.  But – it could all have been a very different story, had the two albums that provide the centre-piece to this new Grapefruit Records collection, received the attention and the sales that they surely deserved.

As always, Grapefruit Records/ Cherry Red have come up with goods when it comes to the packaging.  The three discs are each housed in their own facsimile album cover and the package is completed by a wonderful booklet containing the usual detailed notes from David Wells and loads of fascinating archive photographs.  It’s lovely to see Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera finally reap some of the recognition that their pioneering work of the late 60’s and early 70’s merited.  Long Nights of Summer is a compilation that will appeal to anyone who was in on the secret the first time around, anyone with a liking for good quality, durable English psychedelia and anyone who likes their retro-pop garnished with something just a bit different.

Listen to Mary Jane – the second single that Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera release, back in 1967 – here:

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