Christmas has come early this year with the arrival of Affinity, the sumptuous and expansive boxed set celebrating the English quintet’s eponymous 1970 release. It’s the latest restoration project in Esoteric’s impressive series of reissues, and one of the most comprehensive to date. Although some old-timers may be fortunate enough to have the original Affinity LP in their collections, today’s crate diggers find themselves contemplating second mortgages (if not teetering on the edge of divorce) when presented with the average £500.00 price tag slapped on near-mint originals dotting the secondhand market. One-off albums of such legendary status are rarely well represented by decent CD editions (to be fair, Repertoire did pump out a few sporadic pressings of this one) and those can quickly go out of print too, or remain expensive Japanese imports. Leave it to Esoteric, then, to take on the entirety of Affinity’s recorded history, from their earliest jazz beginnings straight down the line to their post-Linda Hoyle lineup, and assemble it all into an exhaustive 4 CD package.
A glossy clamshell box houses the four remastered discs, the first of which is the album proper in a mini-LP replicating the original gatefold. Known for featuring the band’s fiery, colossal cover version of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower (and that surely is the centrepiece), the John Anthony-produced album boasts six equally classic companion tracks. Kicking off with the impossibly infectious groove of Alan Hull’s I Am And So Are You (augmented by a sassy brass arrangement courtesy of John Paul Jones), the band’s proto-prog debut record unfolds into a swirling assortment of jazz, psych, rock and blues, with the dynamite organ work of Lynton Naiff (often the most praised member in the reviews of the day, as we discover in the booklet) giving much of the music its thick, rich character. Fluid guitar lines from Mike Jopp are woven throughout the tracks as the skillful rhythm section of Grant Serpell and Mo Foster provides a firm anchor. The young Hoyle was an outstanding vocalist, pinballing between ballsy belting, delicate beauty, and epic majesty. Despite the excellence of the musicians backing her, it was undoubtedly her monster pipes that gave Affinity their special edge, as evidenced by the way she storms through killer tracks like Three Sisters, Mr. Joy, and Night Flight.
Rounding out this first disc is a generous dollop of bonus tracks, beginning with the band’s pre-album single Eli’s Comin’ (b/w United States Of Mind). Yes Man follows, a studio demo from late 1970 during work on an abortive second album (I’ll leave the band history to the brilliantly illustrated booklet). Mose Allison’s jazz-blues hybrid If You Live is next, recorded for a BBC radio broadcast (introduced as ‘Linda Hoyle and The Affinity’), followed by an energetic version of You Met Your Match from a 1968 studio session. Moving right along with the cover songs is a 1969 TV performance of I Am The Walrus, allegedly with Hoyle belting out her spirited vocals while sitting on a giant cake, surrounded by a hundred lit candles. Two more gems close out this first disc: Little Lonely Man is an original, another BBC radio recording, before we are treated to an audience recording of a 1971 show where ‘The’ Affinity deliver a truncated version of Miles Davis’ It’s About That Time that blends into a dazzling, jammy live rendition of Watchtower. Although this mini-medley is joined late and is of typical noisy bootleg quality, it is nonetheless a more than listenable highlight.
In early 1969, Affinity temporarily shrunk to a four-piece while Hoyle recovered from an operation on her vocal chords, so they soldiered on as an instrumental quartet until she was fit to rejoin them. They supported Stan Getz and his (amazing) quartet at Ronnie Scott’s famous Soho club for a month, earning rave reviews in the process, and it is from one night of that residency that the majority of disc two is taken. Titled Live Instrumentals 1969, the disc spans 14 tracks and 70 minutes of wonderful jazz-rock (a genre still teething at that point) being performed to a lucky crowd. Naiff and Jopp trade melodic leads over top the swing of Foster and Serpell, sounding more like seasoned veterans than the four nervous lads they likely were. They coast through a varied set of covers ranging from Miles to The Beatles (Jopp’s stabbing Gibson chords acting out McCartney’s bridge vocals in A Day In The Life while Naiff’s Hammond mimics Lennon’s dreamy chanting). A handful of pieces from BBC Maida Vale sessions in 1968 and 1970 round out the disc (okay, so maybe it should have been called Live Instrumentals 1969… Give Or Take A Year – but the quality of this stuff is so good, including another fine remastering job from engineer Paschal Byrne, we won’t dock them any points for minor inaccuracies).
Disc three is a step further back in time, to the days when Naiff (then a pianist only) and Foster (on drums rather than bass – again, it’s all in the booklet!) comprised the US Jazz Trio with Nick Nicholas on double bass. Titled Origins 1965-67, this disc showcases the young Sussex University schoolmates at a time when they played mainly jazz standards such as Someday My Prince Will Come, My Funny Valentine and Autumn Leaves, and occasionally provided the live rhythm section for guest soloists. The tracks in this collection are from various dates and locations, and predate not only Affinity, but the later popularity of fusion. This is pure jazz, beautifully played, and a terrific snapshot of the immense talent of these musicians in their budding years.
Finally, we jump ahead to the end of the road with Affinity 1971-72. This fourth disc is assembled from studio demos and rehearsals (with some fairy dust overdubs to flesh out the sound) to form The Album That Might Have Been – But Wasn’t. With Naiff and Hoyle both having departed the band, the new lineup featured Viv McAuliffe on vocals; a strong singer to be sure, but problems within the band caused an implosion before the new album could be recorded properly. With no disrespect to McAuliffe or new ivory-tinkler Dave Watts, it doesn’t appear that Affinity could recover and rebound from the loss of two such massive contributors to their sound. Still, they managed 49 minutes of music that was sounding pretty good with the newcomers who were eager to impress, and this disc is an intriguing glimpse into the crystal ball.
Though the individual musicians went on to different projects, Affinity was destined to be – by today’s standards – an obscure band whose sole release is sometimes considered a lost classic. Those who know it tend to rightfully hold it in high regard, and this impressive expanded edition not only provides four and a half hours of quality listening, but an easily affordable way of getting this most worthy title into people’s collections and back into circulation where it belongs. We’re a long way from 1970 when this platter first entered the world and that iconic Vertigo label spiraled hypnotically on people’s turntables, but thankfully that old dust has been blown off and this gem can sparkle once again. And in this brave new world of 2021, that couldn’t be more welcome.