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Friday, 29 May 2020

Greenslade - Pilgrims of Progression

By Mikey G.


It was all Jon Lord's fault.  In 1972 I became obsessed with Deep Purple's 1972 Machine Head, an album which showcased Lord’s superb Hammond organ playing.  From then on I found myself drawn to bands which prominently featured keyboards and in those days that was still fairly cool.  It’s also fair to say some of the best rock keyboard players surfaced around that time.  Rick Wakeman really came to the fore after leaving the Strawbs to join Yes, the Zombies keyboard maestro Rod Argent formed his own eponymous band when the Zombies’ Odessey And Oracle initially failed to sell, while the Nice and ELP, of course, had the inimitable Keith Emerson.  Then there was Tony Banks in Genesis, Vincent Crane in Atomic Rooster, the list goes on and on, and I wanted to hear them all.

With this in mind, imagine my excitement when I discovered a band that featured not one, but two virtuoso keyboard players.  The band was Greenslade, the brainchild of Dave Greenslade, the much-venerated keyboard player with jazz prog pioneers Colosseum.  Greenslade started out backing Chris Farlowe in one of his mid-sixties Thunderbirds line-ups. Both men eventually ended up in Colosseum, together with erstwhile John Mayall's Bluesbreaker drummer Jon Hiseman.
 
*Samurai - Greenwich Gramophone Co. 1971

Although critically acclaimed, Colosseum struggled to garner much in the way of album sales and the band split in 1971 with their last release, Colosseum Live, regarded by many as their best.  Meanwhile Greenslade and Colosseum bass player Tony Reeves decided it might be a good idea to form a band with two keyboard players.


Immediately after Colosseum, Tony Reeves became the A&R director for the independent progressive label Greenwich Gramophone Co. and he invited keyboard player Dave Lawson of Samurai, a commercially struggling act with the label, to join the group.  Lawson had previously been a member of the Alan Bown Set and Web.  To complete the line-up, they recruited drummer Andrew McCulloch, formerly with Manfred Mann and Arthur Brown.  McCulloch had also briefly been a member of King Crimson, having replaced Michael Giles and appearing on just one KC album, the very jazz orientated Lizard in 1970.  He had also been a member of the band Fields, together with Graham Fields, founder of another predominantly keyboard act, Rare Bird.


*Fields - CBS 1971

After positive stirrings in the prog friendly music press of the time, some even declaring them to be a supergroup, Greenslade managed to sign to a major label, Warner Brothers, in 1972.  Their self-titled debut album was recorded at Morgan Studios in London during November and December of 1972 and released in February of the following year.  Beautifully packaged in a lavish Roger Dean-designed gatefold cover and adorned with Dean’s unmistakable typography which would see more exposure later in the year when the Yes masterpiece Close To The Edge appeared.  The four-handed mystical character on the cover was Dave Greenslade’s idea and it amply set the scene for a band with keyboards as the centrepiece.


*Greenslade - Warner Bros.  February 1973

The album itself featured seven tracks, most of which are on the mellow side.  It did, however, establish a sound that gave the band a small prog rock place of its own with strong organ and synth melodies over lavish mellotron.  But what really made this band different was the jazzy/blues feel provided by the rhythm section.  McCulloch’s busy drumming accentuates the band’s sometimes unusual time signatures.  Reeves shows himself to be an exceptional bass player, often playing lead lines where you might expect guitar patterns to appear.  Dave Lawson's vocals are not to everyone's taste and he was, by his own admission, never destined to be the archetypal overbearing prog frontman.  Over 80% of the music is instrumental, so what vocal parts he does provide simply add to the overall feel of the songs, rather than being a major contribution.


Kicking off with fan favourite “Feathered Friends” with its fast-paced opening, sliding effortlessly into what can only be described as a blues motif with some excellent bass work by Reeves adding additional colour.  It’s a fine showpiece for the band's unique configuration.  The ecological message relayed in the song is still relevant today.  “An English Western” is an inspired instrumental, highlighting Dave Greenslade's Hammond organ work.  With Lawson adding lush grand and electric pianos to the piece, there’s a definite blues feel in there as well.  Next up “Drowning Man” goes from a slow, dark beginning through phases of jazz, blues and classic symphonic prog themes.  As the title suggests, “Temple Song” has an oriental feel and could probably be described as a ballad.  Lawson uses a much lighter vocal approach that blends well with the gentle theme of the song and brings side one of the original vinyl release neatly to an end.





The side two opener “Melange” is the highlight of the album for me.  A fast paced instrumental, it has all the trademark themes the band were famous for, plus some brilliant lead bass work from Reeves.  If there’s a song that best represents Greenslade’s sound as a whole, this is it.  Written by Dave Lawson, the quirky “What Are You Doin’ To Me” is short by prog standards and of all the songs on the album it hasn’t dated well.  Sandwiched in between the epic “Melange” and the equally thematic and sophisticated “Sundance” it’s simply overshadowed.  Closing track “Sundance” is classic Greenslade, with multi-layered themes, shifting time patterns and some excellent drumming driving the, dare I say it, heavier funky sections.  The Hammond organ through Leslie cabinets is all over the place and shimmering mellotron symphonics fill the song out in all the right places.  If you were a fan of rock keyboards, it definitely left you wanting more.

*Bedside Manners Are Extra - Warner Bros.  Nov.1973

Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long and only seven months later in November, Greenslade delivered another slab of progressive wonderment in the shape of Bedside Manners Are Extra.  Buoyed by positive reviews and solid sales of the first album, the band raced back into the studio.  Spending a couple of weeks creating completely new songs from scratch in a church hall near Dave Greenslade’s home, they were tight and rehearsed before going into the studio and knocked off the album in nine days, recording completely live with hardly any overdubs.  A minor miracle by today's standards.

Once again, the gatefold sleeve was stunningly adorned with Roger Dean’s updated take on the four handed man, who this time picked up a 5th hand for good measure.  The cover is probably better known than the music these days and is often used as a backdrop to prog rock editorial or to promote Dean’s portfolio as a classic of the genre.

The album opens with the “Bedside Manners are Extra” title track, which starts off gently with tongue-in-cheek lyrics, taunting privately educated doctors and their approach to the public at large.  It features some classic mellotron-based build up themes coloured by Fender Rhodes and ARP synth work, before coming to a mellow conclusion.  It is apparent that the music has taken a sophisticated leap from the first album with each member playing to their strengths.  Track two “Pilgrims Progress” is probably Greenslade’s best known track, having appeared on several prog rock compilations over the years.  It features a straightforward rock n’ roll backbeat, together with what has been described as one of the best twin keyboard jam workouts of prog’s golden age.  It’s almost like the guitar one-upmanship you might expect from a southern rock act.  Side one closer “Time To Dream” can best be described as a jaunty shuffle with playful lyrics and a killer synth solo from Lawson.  This track has been described as having the intricacy of Gentle Giant, the unique vocal work of Van der Graaf Generator and a melody worthy of Yes.  High praise indeed.

Side two kicks off with “Drum Folk”, written by Dave Greenslade and drummer McCulloch. It starts with a keyboard jig before slipping into a drum solo.  I’m not sure if drum solos deserve a place on studio albums.  In my opinion they are something that are probably best left for the live show.  It sounds OK here, but I still struggle not to hit the fast-forward button, even though McCulloch plays pretty impressive intricate drum patterns, rather than the usual blood and thunder style you often get in concert.  “Sun Kissed You're Not” is probably the jazziest track on the album, with some great interplay between Lawson and Greenslade, once again powerfully pushed along by that great rhythm section. 

The final track “Chalk Hill” is an instrumental which blends a number of the band’s typical themes brilliantly, before becoming a full-on boogie with playful keyboard interplay taking us to some classical piano and out into the run-off groove.  A good and, at times, brilliant album that received positives reviews from critics and fans alike.

















Touring as headliners and in support of Rory Gallagher throughout Europe found the band picking up a healthy following, particularly in the prog heartlands of Italy and Germany.  So, when they went back into the studio in early 1974, confidence was high.  So high, in fact that, having felt they’d made their point with the two-keyboard line-up, Clem Clempson, Greenslade’s old guitar buddy from Colosseum, was invited to play on a couple of tracks.  They also moved away from Roger Dean's fantasy world for the sleeve, settling on Dave Lawson’s suggestion to have a black panther in front of what appears to be an elaborately engraved gong.  It must have looked good on the proof artwork but in my opinion it never worked.  It’s a dark, uninspiring cover and in many ways the antithesis of the other artistically stunning album covers the band made for Warners.  They settled on the title “Spyglass Guest” for the album, a phrase picked-up from key track “Joie De Vivre” that by all accounts has no meaning whatsoever.  This record did at least enter the UK charts, not exactly with a bullet, but it hit the #34 spot in late 1974.

*Spyglass Guest - Warner Bros.  Aug. 1974

For the first time the songs were written by individual band members.  Opener “Spirit Of The Dance” is a Dave Greenslade-penned instrumental sounding, dare I say it, almost folky in places.  As the title suggests this has a real spring in its step with many themes that can only be classed as jigs and reels.  It’s also mellotron heaven, if you’re an enthusiast.


“Little Red Fry Up” could be the soundtrack for a cartoon.  Written and sung by Lawson, it's very up tempo and has the first guitar break on any Greenslade album.  Clem Clempson lets fly in the middle eight, wasting no time stamping his hard rock pedigree on the song, with a solo remarkably similar to his work with current employers Humble Pie.  It’s worth noting that later in 1974 Clem applied for the job to replace Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple, but was famously overlooked.  The slot was taken instead by American hot-shot guitarist Tommy Bolin.


“Rainbow” and “Siam Seesaw” are both mellow, atmospheric songs.  The first is the closest Greenslade gets to a ballad, the latter instrumental has acoustic guitar from guest Andy Roberts who at the time was plying his trade with UK folk act Plainsong.  His walking acoustic guitar signature acts as a simple backing to some great synth and moog meandering before Clem Clempson gets in on the act with another blistering guitar solo.  From there the band winds back into the acoustic guitar theme, bringing the song to a close.  “Joie De Vivre” is probably the high point of the album, featuring all the classic Greenslade themes plus some violin work from guest Graham Smith, who was playing with UK prog act String Driven Thing at the time.




The interplay between the keyboards and the rhythm section really shine throughout.  “Red Light” is a playful ode to the “oldest trade”.  A Lawson song in every respect, it almost has pop sensibilities.  Written by Dave Greenslade, “Melancholic Race” is an instrumental piece which builds slowly to a wonderful jazz fusion interlude, with every tool in the box hauled out and used to great effect.  The album closes with the only cover song Greenslade ever recorded, “Theme For An Imaginary Western”.  Written by Jack Bruce with his long-time collaborator Pete Brown, this song originally appeared on Jack’s 1969 album Songs For A Tailor.  Producer Felix Pappalardi worked on the Bruce album and he then took “Theme For An Imaginary Western” to his own band Mountain for their 1970 album Climbing!  Mountain also played the song at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.  


Initially Dave Lawson wasn’t keen to cover “Theme For An Imaginary Western” as it was outside his range.  Strangely, as is often the case with these things Lawson, who suffered a collapsed lung during the recording process, sang what has often been cited as his best vocal performance.  It really does stand alone in the band's body of work but, for me, it’s a worthy inclusion on this album.




Bassist Tony Reeves decided to concentrate his efforts on a career in record production and this was to be last album with Greenslade.  In 1975 they brought in session player Martin Briley to handle bass and occasional lead guitar as required.

*Time & Tide - Warner Bros. February 1975

Time And Tide, Greenslade’s fourth and final album for Warner Brothers, has the feel of a band struggling to find direction.  Although both Dave Greenslade and Lawson were writing together, the approach was very different.  With the exception of a couple of songs, the progressive themes and interplay between the band members was phased out to make way for more traditional rock songs.  A move, one suspects, purely down to the commercial pressure of a record label waiting for a payday after three critically acclaimed releases but very little in the way of sales.


The new style was almost glam rock, but very punchy and bursting with originality.  Songs like “Animal Farm”, “Newsworth” and “Flattery Stakes” really kick butt, with fiery keyboard stabs and guitar flourishes all over them.  Dave Lawson puts in a sterling effort both lyrically and vocally, although the latter is a real opinion splitter, as many people never really got on with his high raspy contributions.  But 45 years later I can’t imagine these songs any other way.  


The only song I would class as an out-and-out prog rock track, in the vein of their earlier material, is “The Ass’s Ears”, bursting out from the dark and melancholic “Waltz For A Fallen Idol”.  It’s dramatic and edgy with some absolutely stunning drum fills from McCulloch, a track I’ve never tired of.  I remember seeing them play this song on the 70’s UK teatime music TV show Supersonic as if it were yesterday.  It blew me away.  How they managed to get on this show remains a mystery but clearly it wasn’t a chart driven programme as they occasionally had some very obscure bands in the studio, which was probably the only reason I caught this one.  I seem to remember Dave Lawson wearing a t-shirt with the words “Is This Music Really Shit?” emblazoned on the back.  It wasn’t to me, of course but, alas, not many others agreed, as this album also failed to chart.  


With another stunning cover by sci-fi and fantasy artist Patrick Woodroffe and a crisp production by Hugh Jackman, aided by studio stalwart Martin Briley, there was potential for a killer album.  Infamously, the album was only around 32 minutes long and some tracks felt a little like filler even at that length.  Closer “Gangsters” is a theme tune from a television crime series, and good as it is, that’s exactly what it sounds like.  Elsewhere, songs like the title track and the other instrumental “Catalan” are OK but not brilliant.  They took the album out on the road, but it never escaped the slow lane in terms of sales.  Sadly, later that year the band went their separate ways.


So, there we are, almost four albums in four years.  Although never regarded as giants in their field, Greenslade should not be overlooked, since they were real contenders in the golden era of prog.  Probably more than anything else, the lack of an enigmatic front man saw the band become more of an acquired taste than having an immediate commercial and broad appeal.  Their sound was unique, and the playing and songcraft nearly always top notch.  In later years, there were the usual solo albums and re-unions but none got close to those original three and a half albums.




In 2018 and 2019 the four Warners albums were lavishly re-packaged and remastered by Cherry Red Records progressive offshoot Esoteric Recordings.  They have all brushed up well, with some live bits and pieces added for good measure. 

Both Greenslade and Lawson went on to work in TV and film.  Lawson is still very active, having scored many big budget movies, which includes the legendary “cantina” section in the original Star Wars movie.  More recently he also worked on the BBC’s Blue Planet documentaries.  

If you want to find a way into the wonderful world of Greenslade, I’d recommend starting with the first album from this series and take it from there.  It’s not Pink Floyd or Genesis or even Yes.  It’s Greenslade.  There’s no one quite like them.  Then or now.



  


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Greenslade - Pilgrims of Progression

By Mikey G. It was all Jon Lord's fault.  In 1972 I became obsessed with Deep Purple's 1972 Machine Head, an album which sh...