The Late, Late British Invasion: Record Collecting in Retrospect

For many of us music-loving boomers who grew up in a culture of habitual record buying, the purchase of physical music media is a habit not easily left behind. In an age commercially dominated by Instagram pop, this means digging deeper to discover newer bands to support and looking back to fill gaps in a collection with albums that escaped notice the first time around.

In the first of this two-part series, I will be doing the latter. In the annals of rock history, the 60s and 70s are the gifts that keep on giving. The below selections focus on British acts that did not make a huge impact in the States—groups like T. Rex and the Small Faces had only one U.S. hit single. Though I do like to go rummaging around in used record stores for a rare find, for the purposes of this post, most of the below selections I bought as two-CD deluxe reissues.

Odessey & Oracle—the Zombies (1968)

Of all the recognized classic albums of the Sixties, few have had such a delayed recognition as the Zombies swan song long-player, now widely regarded as a masterwork of baroque rock. In fact, the group, who had a handful of pop hits in the mid-60s, had fallen out of favor and split up shortly before the release of Odessey (a misspelling by the cover artist). Without much in the way of tour dates, the group had convened at Abbey Road studios to concoct a unified sounding song cycle that had a regal, autumnal atmosphere that would become beloved to legions of fans—later on down the line. Even its most famous track, “Time of the Season,” wasn’t a hit until 18 months after it was recorded.

I finally got myself a CD of it a few years back and it is remarkably fresh-sounding and relatable in a timeless way: tracks like “Hung Up on a Dream,” “Beechwood Park,” and “This Will Be our Year” have an almost literary universality (the latter song closed an episode of “Mad Men”). The bonus tracks on my edition features only one song not on the original album. As is often the case with these re-issues most of them are re-mixes or alternate takes. But they still managed to fit it onto one CD, so kudos.

Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake—The Small Faces (1968)

This is another semi-concept album classic that was a retro-fitted favorite for savvy U.S. rock fans who grew up knowing the name Small Faces for their solitary stateside hit “Itchykoo Park.” Frontman Steve Marriott became the singer in Humble Pie and the other Small Faces (Ronnie Lane, Ian MacLagan and Kenney Jones) joined forces with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart and dropped the word “small.” Like Odessey, Ogden’s Nut shows the growing sophistication of pop music in the wake of Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. The first side is flawless eclectic British rock that includes Marriott’s soulful “Afterglow,” Ronnie Lane’s folkloric “Song of a Baker” and the music hall romp “Lazy Sunday.” The second side features a suite centering around a character called “Happiness Stan,” the songs linked by a whimsical narrator played by comic actor Stanley Urwin. The 2-CD set that I was obliged to purchase is a beautifully packaged keepsake with a great booklet, however the second disc are just alternate takes of the songs; interesting but only just.

McDonald and Giles (1970)

King Crimson were well known for their numerous lineup changes back in the day, and two of the first to go, charter members Michael Giles on drums and sax/flute man Ian McDonald, teamed up for this quite engaging album. McDonald and Giles sound a bit like early Crimson minus most of the jarring parts, which makes for a pleasing throwback prog experience. Giles expert style of skittering drum fills sets the pace along with the prominent bass work of brother Peter (ex of the pre-KC group Giles, Giles and Fripp) while McDonald, aside from his woodwinds, fills in on keyboards and occasional lead guitar. Highlights include the ballad “Flight of the Ibis” (a close cousin of Crimson’s “Cadence and Cascade”) and the buoyant rocker “Tomorrow’s People” which features one of a handful of adventurous mid-song jazz jams which keeps the album on its toes. But this duo was destined to be a one-off effort and by mid-decade McDonald was sailing in far less adventurous waters as a charter member of Foreigner.

Phantasmagoria—Curved Air (1972)

Curved Air were one of the few bands in the original progressive-rock era to have a female lead singer. Sonja Kristina had a great voice and an un-showy charisma and the guys behind her were virtuosic but team-oriented in approach. Phantasmagoria was their third album and generally considered their best. It opens with two lush but emphatic showcases for Kristina: “Marie Antoinette” and “Melinda (More or Less”). The group generally stick with this compact approach (the whirlwind title track is another highlight) but they also have an experimental side. There is the appropriately titled instrumental “Ultra-Vivaldi” led by the warp-speed violin of Daryl Way and a rabbit-hole number that was the reportedly the first ever to use a voice vocoder. Gratifyingly, the second disc is a DVD featuring several live TV performances from Belgium and Austria (Curved Air were big on the Continent). The group is spot-on and Sonja Kristina shows the Instagram pop divas of today how to be sexy without being sexualized.

The Slider—T. Rex (1972)

The Slider was the highwater mark in the career of glam-rock icon (and punk/new wave influencer) Marc Bolan and his band T. Rex. It was the vivid follow-up to their other acknowledged classic album (Electric Warrior) and featured their last two #1 U.K. hit singles, “Telegram Sam” and “Metal Guru.” Bolan and his mates had perfected their formula of glittering pop hooks, compact lead guitar, and fanciful lyrics full of decadent characters (this LP features the twins “Baby Boomerang” and “Baby Strange”). The backlash was underway in the fickle British music press, that he was merely an image conscious go-getter full of empty words, in love with the idea of his own stardom. But as is usually the case, time will show the wiser. As Bolan biographer Mark Paytress notes in this edition’s booklet, Bolan’s rock poetry holds up very well nowadays: “Marc’s fast, snatched images are remarkably in tune with the zap-and-you’ll-miss-it nature of contemporary culture.”

Yet there is real emotion and yearning in the slower songs like “Mystic Lady,” “Ballrooms of Mars” and the affecting “Spaceball Ricochet” where Bolan posits “Deep in my heart there’s a house that can hold just about all of you.” All the more poignant knowing now that he would die in a car crash in 1977, two weeks short of his 30th birthday. The second disc presents as an alternative album (“Rabbit Fighter”) that is an intermittently interesting batch of acoustic demos and early band takes in the same running order as the proper album. There are also four non-LP B side songs.

Parachute—Pretty Things (1970)

The Pretty Things are another one of those exemplary British Invasion-era bands that never got to storm the beaches in America. Even in Old Blighty they were a bit of a cult band, having had only two Top 20 singles in their homeland. But like many of their contemporaries, the group make remarkable creative strides between their circa 1964 debuts and the end of the decade. Starting out as a gritty, R&B-influenced act the Pretties had by 1968 come out with one of the first rock operas (S.F.Sorrow) and two years later, followed up with this remarkable song cycle that only in long retrospect stands out as one of the great albums of 1970.

Side one plays out a lot like side two of 1969’s Abbey Road: a seamlessly connected series of short songs that speak to the complexities of contemporary urban life. An implied escape to the country in Parachute’s second side (esp. on the trenchant “Sickle Clowns”) doesn’t necessarily bring existential relief. It’s a rigorous and rock-steady album, the first without founding guitarist Dick Taylor, though new member Vic Unitt shreds admirably. Singer Phil May and bassist Wally Waller did most of the writing here and on the 40th anniversary release I have, the pair reunited to do several unplugged versions of Parachute numbers. On the other half of that bonus disc is a half-dozen singles and B-sides, a couple of which (“Summertime” and “Blue Serge Blues”) rival anything on the album.

Greenslade (1973)

In the online, “suggested for you” age we live in, it’s easier than ever to discover defunct bands of your fave genre that flew under your radar in younger days. For prog fans, a thumbnail image of a Roger Dean album cover is sometimes all it takes. The renowned artist did covers and logos for Yes, Uriah Heep, Budgie and many others. His illustration for Greenslade’s first album is a typically handsome fantasy vision: a four-armed wizard in a sun-streaked cavern. David Greenslade had been keyboardist for the adventurous fusion jam band Colosseum but took a more fanciful approach when fronting his own outfit.

If you’re a fan of Seventies keyboard wizardry, but maybe have had a lot of Messrs. Wakeman and Emerson, this group will be a fun find as Greenslade uses a two keyboard-bass-drums lineup. Dave Lawson sings from the piano and adds some synth while the head Dave leads the way on Hammond organ and also utilizes the mighty Mellotron. The group alternate vibrant, tonally rich instrumentals (such as “English Western”) with droll vocal numbers like “Feathered Friends” and “Drowning Man.” Unlike many of their contemporaries, Greenslade never succumb to bombast, unless you count a couple of portentous blasts of Mellotron. The double gatefold edition that I bought was beautifully packaged with a nice booklet to get you up to speed on what you missed first time around. The second CD contain slightly different versions played at a BBC studio session and at a live show.

Garden Shed—England (1977)

Alas, poor England. No, I don’t mean the Brexit debacle or that it had to survive Liz Truss being Prime Minister for six weeks. I’m talking about the prog-rock group England, whose excellent debut album Garden Shed was released in 1977, just as punk rock was taking the country by storm. Led by keyboardist-singer Robert Webb, England prove themselves skilled purveyors of an ornate art-rock that is not far off from what Yes were doing around the same time (Going for the One, etc.). They excel at quiet ballads (“Yellow” and “All Alone”) and fable-like rockers (“Midnight Madness”) and can get epic as well: “Three-Piece Suite” has 12 verses!

And kudos to the band for doing up the 30th anniversary rerelease in the best way possible. The second disc shows a reconfigured band staking their claim with cheeky new originals (“Fags, Booze and Lottery”) an imaginative cover (Dylan’s “Masters of War” set to Gershwin’s “Summertime”) and a couple of b-sides and live tracks. Garden Shed is a lovingly packaged with Webb adding illustrations of each song to the lyric sheet, an idea that was shelved in ’77. Although they didn’t last long in their original incarnation, England are a band well worth (re)discovering. Also, check out their 1975 EP “Imperial Hotel” on YouTube, it’s actually one 24-minute piece and is prog heaven.

Well, that’s it for now. In the hopefully near future, I will be back with Part 2. That will focus on later-life discovery of newer bands. But it’s all relative—by newer I mean groups that have formed after 1990, more than 30 years ago!

6 comments

  1. I was all-in on the American releases of The Zombies, Pretty Things, Small Faces and T-Rex from the word go. I considered them to be classics after just a few listens and my band even covered a song off the Small Faces album. You know my aversion to prog-rock, so I pretty much ignored those, though I didn’t find MacDonald and Giles to be objectionable. It’s nice to see subsequent generations embracing these wonderful album, it makes me proud to be an old fart.

    1. It’s strange how all those four bands u mention at the top had only one or two U.S. hits at the time and really became icons in retrospect. I never even heard of the Pretty Things until Bowie covered them on “Pinups”

  2. Great selection, Rick. I have and regard highly all those you list here (except England, which I’ve heard of but never heard). Greenslade are a favourite (I have all their albums, plus a couple of Dave Greenslade’s solo efforts). MacDonal Giles is a minor prog classic and Phantasmagoria is probably the most consistent Curved Air album. Great stuff. Keep ’em coming!

  3. T.Rex were incredibly big in the U.K. in 1972. But, not a given they would be big in the US too which sounds as if it was the case. Marc Bolan became pin-up fodder for young girls (like me) and although they would have loved the adoration at the time it did change the artistic path they were on.

    Great list and full of interesting info as ever.

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