Many people still cite this album as the high point of Price’s solo career, and who can argue with them?
Concept albums can be a funny sort of beast. Logically, the idea of putting out a set of songs as an album linked together thematically should be an obvious one whatever the genre, and indeed it is widely acknowledged that the first example of the form came with Frank Sinatra’s 1955 album In The Wee Small Hours, with its collection of songs on the theme of loneliness and failed relationships matched by the cover art of Sinatra alone with a cigarette on a blue-lit street at night. However, as the years have gone by, the form has become inextricably linked with progressive rock bands, and the form often used as a point of ‘Spinal Tap’ ridicule, with its detractors gleefully rehashing tired-to-the-point-of-comatose jokes about hobbits and wizards.
In actual fact though, concept albums can and thankfully do exist outside of the prog format. Admittedly, your humble scribe enjoys a suite of songs based on Alice Through The Looking Glass or some-such as much as the next man, and in fact probably considerably more than most, but this 1974 offering from ex-Animal Alan Price (now lovingly repackaged by ’70s curators extraordinaire Esoteric) shows a refreshingly unusual take on the form.
When originally issued on vinyl, the two sides of this album were called, respectively, ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Today’. The theme is that of Price’s own roots in the North East of England, and the ‘Yesterday’ side harks back to times of hardship and yet also nostalgia via half a dozen simple yet often heartbreakingly well observed songs snapshotting the lives of ordinary working class people. The big hit from the album was Jarrow Song, a track inspired by the famous Jarrow March of 1936, which saw 200 men from the town of Jarrow, five miles outside Newcastle, march the 291 miles to London in around three weeks to petition the government to help with the employment situation back home. The song is brilliantly written, its playful storytelling and jaunty accompaniment paradoxically raising awareness of the serious historical significance of the march even as it had people singing along. Edited for single release, the full version contained here is almost six minutes long, with an extended mid-section, and is a clear highlight of the album. Notably, Price was born only six years after the march and himself attended Jarrow Grammar School.
Jarrow Song is far from alone on Side One, however, with all of the six tracks equally sharply observed, with the grimly biographical Left Over People and the title track painting especially effective pen-pictures. The music throughout this side is perfectly pitched to underscore this nostalgic, gritty feel, with discrete brass instruments joining the sparse accompaniment to create an almost ‘music-hall’ feel at times. It’s so perfectly judged that you feel as if the songs are being played out in the cinema of your mind like an old black-and-white movie. The instrumentation displays Price’s brilliance as an arranger, with the playing perfect yet so subtle that you barely notice it.
The second side (‘Today’) takes a sharp turn into contemporary instrumentation with a set of five more songs, plus a different version of the title track, reflecting the then-current life of Price, having moved away from the North East and escaped the austerity of his childhood. This side is actually less interesting than the first, with one or two songs such as Angel Eyes coming across as a little generic and unremarkable. All, however, is saved by You’re Telling Me, a marvellously crafted blues song which slithers along like a snake, enlivened by some extraordinary Hammond organ work from Price, for over five and a half minutes. The closing alternative version of Between Today And Yesterday itself works extremely well as a counterpoint to the ‘Yesterday’ take, and the two versions seem to shine light on each other with different nuances suggested by the different musical settings. Another highlight is the charming and likeable Look At My Face, which bears a distinct resemblance to some Moody Blues material of a similar vintage, and should be investigated by fans of that band.
Conceptual then, but not as you know it, this is another of those glorious releases which could only have come out of the musical melting pot of the early ’70s. Imagine just ten years later, in the image-and-glossy-production obsessed 1980s, if an established artist had suggested recording an album which sounded completely different on both sides, and also had a strong English Music-Hall feel to one of the sides. Precisely. And yet, the result is wonderfully enjoyable for all that. Many people still cite this album as the high point of Price’s solo career, and who can argue with them?