Babe Ruth Darker Than Blue: The Harvest Years 1972-1975 Esoteric Recordings QECLEC32084
Finally the three albums that English band Babe Ruth recorded for Harvest are back in circulation, this time in a lovely little clamshell box and newly remastered, with replica album sleeve notes.
Straddling genres from rock to progressive, with a massive symphonic sound influenced by film scores, the band — led by guitarist Alan Shacklock, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music— was formed of Shacklock’s friends post-graduation. The initial line-up of Shacklock, Dave Hewitt (bass), Dick Powell (drums, percussion), and Dave Punshon (electric piano, piano), were persuaded by designer Roger Dean, who had heard them playing live, to go professional. With his help they got some gigs at the Marquee, which led to their signing by EMI. However, a key component was still missing, so they held auditions and recruited blues singer Janita (Jenny) Haan.
Once their manager had named them Babe Ruth, they went into Abbey Road Studios to record First Base in 1972, produced by Shacklock to realise his own vision of the band. Wrapped in a Roger Dean sleeve, and with guest musicians such as Gaspar Lawal joining them, the first album really does cross different genres. The band stretches out on Frank Zappa’s King Kong, as well as Wells Fargo and the track for which they are most famous, The Mexican (incorporating part of Ennio Morricone's theme from For a Few Dollars More). The album was focussed on Wild West Americana because of Shacklock’s obsession with Westerns at the time. His deft production and the band’s taut performances bring wide-screen cinematic sound, combined with progressive elements and Haan’s distinctive vocals. The Mexican, with its driving riff, electric piano, and tight funky percussion, sounded like nothing else around at the time. It found a new lease on life in the early 1980s when it was picked up by the US hip-hop scene and became so popular that Haan re-recorded vocals for an updated version. The bonus tracks on this new release include an edited version of Wells Fargo released as a single, with a recording of Theme from A Few Dollars More as its B-side.
By the time 1973’s Amar Caballero came out the line-up had evolved, with Ed Spevock and Chris Holmes replacing Powell and Punshon on, respectively, drums and keyboards. Haan got her first writing credits on this album, which was quite different from their first. As Shacklock explains in the copious sleeve-notes (provided by my former Classic Rock Society colleague Steve Pilkington), while the band was touring his publisher had suggested that he try songwriting for different artists —like Diana Ross and Nana Mouskouri— so that when it came time to record, these were some of their new songs. The album is kicked off by the incredibly funky Lady (inspired by Shacklock’s love of Curtis Mayfield), an example of the continuous expansion of their range that make Babe Ruth so interesting. Meanwhile the haunting Broken Cloud exploits the recording studio’s possibilities, as Haan’s vocals pan from left to right and then back to centre to create an interesting and intimate sound. With a Hipgnosis-designed sleeve, the album’s highlight was the three-part title suite, mixing rock with Latin sounds provided by some Venezuelan percussionists. Shacklock and the band certainly weren’t standing still, but their constant evolution disconcerted fans: were they rock? progressive? world? Yet good music is good music, and does not really need a label.
Their third album Babe Ruth came out in January 1975 and saw Steve Gurl take over on keyboards. It featured several covers, including a spirited run-through of Private Number (included here as a single version) and Curtis Mayfield's protest song We People Darker than Blue. The band also returned to their roots by recording Morricone’s theme to A Fistful of Dollars. The record opens in fine form with Dancer, which contains some great guitar work by Shacklock and excellent piano sound from Gurl. The secret weapon, though, is Haan’s voice, and she knocks it out of the park here as well as on the Curtis Mayfield cover. A particular highlight is Shacklock’s closing semi-autobiographical The Duchess of Orleans, on which he Cockneys up his lyrics, whilst the band assembles a powerful sound behind this Dickensian story.
The band changed after the third album with the departures of first Shacklock and then Haan. However, these three albums from their classic line-up endure today, with plenty of musical inventiveness, powerful songwriting and vocals, and of course that all-time classic The Mexican, still grooving along. It’s about time that the band got the recognition that they deserve.
Roger Chapman Moth to a Flame The Recordings 1979-1981 Esoteric Recordings ECLEC52794
A brand-new clamshell five-disc boxed set gathers together the recordings made by former Family vocalist Roger Chapman, including his two solo albums Chappo (1979) and Mail Order Magic (1981), plus three live concerts from his band The Shortlist, including a 1981 performance in Hamburg that has never been released before.
After the demise of his post-Family band The Streetwalkers in 1977, it took two years for Chapman's debut album Chappo —made with his long-term musical collaborator Geoff Whitehorn— to be released on the Acrobat label. The musical landscape was shifting in the late seventies due to punk, but Chapman wasn’t particularly worried; he continued to take his audience with him from project to project.
Chapman had spent years writing with Charlie Whitney in both Family (a phase in which he navigated hard rock and psychedelia) and The Streetwalkers, and the list of his first solo project’s contributors, attracted by its unique take on blues-rock, reads like a Who’s Who of the English rock scene. Featuring Mickey Moody, Henry Spinetti, Ray Cooper, Poli Palmer and Vicky Brown, the ten tracks on Chappo have real swagger and verve to them, topped off, of course, by Chapman’s unmistakable voice. The album includes self-penned tracks including Moth to a Flame, Shape of Things, and Pills, but there are also some really inspired covers: Lieber and Stoller’s Keep Forgettin’ and a fantastic version of Tim Hardin's Hang on to a Dream, whilst the bonus tracks include a brilliant rendition of The Rolling Stones’ Let's Spend the Night Together. Disc Two includes outtakes from Chappo and a complete BBC Radio 1 in Concert from 1979 (again, who said that punk killed rock?) This prestigious show features an inspired opener in Who Pulled the Nite Down, segueing into two Chuck Berry numbers, Talking about You and Down, Down, Down. There is also a blinding live performance of Hang on to a Dream, which showcases the first line-up of Chapman’s backing band the Shortlist as a tight unit, topped off by Chapman’s fine vocals.
Much of the music on this box is taken from live performances, indicating how intensively the band were touring, particularly in Europe, where Chapman still has a huge following to this day. Live in Hamburg makes up the entirety of Disc Three and features band members Mel Collins on saxophone and Geoff Whitehorn on guitar. Blues-rock covers such as Let's Spend the Night Together, Family tracks like Hey Mr. Policeman and an incendiary version of Burlesque made it into the set.
Despite the collapse of Acrobat Records and Chapman’s struggle to fund his second solo album, Mail Order Magic was eventually released in 1980 on Germany’s Line Records. It features drummers Mitch Mitchell and John Halsey, and it expanded Chapman’s sound, with Poli Palmer’s synth on He Was, She Was a particular highlight. The rocking Unknown Soldier (Can’t Get to Heaven) encapsulates Chapman’s songwriting and vocal performance. Another Hamburg concert from 1981, featured on Disc Five, contains vibrant performances of Ducking Down and the Willie Dixon tracks Hoochie Coochie Man and I Just Wanna Make Love to You. The band are absolutely on fire in this excellent concert which rounds up the most comprehensive collection of Chappo’s early solo material, and shows why he’s regarded as one of England’s finest vocalists.—James R Turner