January 19, 2024

There’s much here to enjoy, not least in the contextual view of a different side to John Weathers and a fascinating sub-branch of the Welsh Rock Family Tree.

Okay, let’s deal with the obvious cries from those sitting with their hands raised for attention – no, you’ve never heard of Ancient Grease. And if indeed that is the case, it’s not exactly surprising as, in addition to this 1970 release being their only album, they also technically didn’t even exist – at least under that name. Confused? Well, let’s start at the beginning… which happens to be in South Wales in the late 1960s (somewhat of a creative hotbed at the time), and in particular one John Weathers, the larger-than-life drummer who went on to become synonymous with the otherwise more reserved Gentle Giant and also, following their 1980s reformation, Welsh stalwarts Man. Weathers is the focal point around which this album revolves, although he isn’t actually in the band…

In 1968 and 1969 Weathers was in a band called Eyes Of Blue, along with, notably, future Man keyboardist Phil Ryan and Rick Wakeman singer Gary Pickford-Hopkins, recording two rather good albums with the them. At this time, Weathers came into contact with a local band playing all cover material under the rather nice name of Strawberry Dust. Impressed by them, and also having a stock of songs he had written which hadn’t fitted Eyes Of Blue, he saw an opportunity for this band who were short on original material to put form to his unused songs in an arrangement which suited both parties. They recorded a demo at the newly-opened Monmouth Studios, which Weathers took to Lou Reizner of Mercury Records, who had produced the Eyes Of Blue albums (he was also later very prominently responsible for the cinematic travesty All This And World War Two, which somehow raised a mistaken belief that the idea of marrying Beatles songs to actual WW2 film footage would make sense, but we will gloss over that particular disaster). He was impressed enough for the band to get a recording contract to get an album released via Mercury, and they duly recorded it.

Ancient Grease with a suitably ‘Strawberry’ tint…

But that’s Strawberry Dust, I hear you interrupt. Where do Ancient Grease come in? Well, for that we go to Reizner again as, after annoying the hell out of actual producer Weathers by (reportedly) popping into the studio to approve the final recordings and essentially claiming a co-producer credit on the back of it, he made an odd decision. He gave the material the green light, but he took exception for some unaccountable reason with the name Strawberry Dust, and ordered an abrupt change of band name to the groan-inducing pun of Ancient Grease. If he hoped that would sell more albums, it didn’t – largely down to Mercury putting almost no money or effort into promoting the album which sank like a greased stone. The band went away and continued their career for a while under the original Strawberry Dust name again almost as if nothing had happened, which leaves the name of Ancient Grease a rather curious sort of ‘orphan’.

The album itself is certainly very much Weathers’ ‘baby’, as he wrote four of the ten songs and co-wrote three more, as well as playing drums on a couple of tracks and producing the album. Ryan and Pickford-Hopkins both chipped in with guest appearances as well, each contributing one songwriting contribution, with lead guitarist Graham Williams the only Ancient Greaser to take part in the writing process. Stylistically it’s a rather varied affair – something which is not too evident at first owing to some questionable decisions regarding the album running order. It opens with the heavy and dirty, yet rather uninspired blues rock of Freedom Train, and with the less than remarkable rocker Don’t Want following up, the fear is that this might be a rather samey dish of competent meat-and-potatoes rock, especially given the Ancient Grease name. Fortunately, should the listener persevere beyond this opening, things begin to change rapidly from track three, the Pickford-Hopkins/Weathers co-write Odd Song, a much more ‘progressive’ effort, as is the following Eagle Song, which mixes in greater riffery and ambition. Phil Ryan’s song Where The Snow Lies Forever closes what was originally the first side of the album in superb style, an entrancingly elegant song which builds into an impressive group effort. By this time any thoughts of 40 minutes of workmanlike rock have been thoroughly banished, leaving the inescapable impression that those first two songs should have been separated, with at least one moved to mid-album. But we digress, so let’s continue.

The truly hideous US cover for the album…

Graham Williams is next up with his only solo writing credit (he co-wrote two others with Weathers) on the splendidly titled Mother Grease The Cat. A great piece of 1970-timestamped proto-hard-rock-prog, it comes over a little like what Spooky Tooth were doing circa their standout Spooky Two album, and it sees the band impressing with their undeniable ability and tightness. The reflective Time To Die slows things down again before the promising yet ultimately unsatisfying Prelude To A Blind Man. Written by a friend of Weathers named Greg Curran, it occupies five supremely disjointed minutes, full of nice individual bits which need a far more disciplined songwriting hand than Mr Curran to mould into a coherently successful song. The band do their best, but cannot keep focus enough. Things pick up again with the final two tracks, however, with Mystic Mountain seeing another stylistic detour into full-fledged country rock, but more successfully than one might expect. I for one never expected to chance upon a country song written by John Weathers, but here it is and it’s done rather well. Closing the album is the title track, a definite highlight and the longest song here at just over six and a half minutes. It’s a tight, chugging riffer which goes up another level as the band begin stretching out and relaxing into a cracking little jam which sounds as if it could hve gone on for longer without overstaying its welcome. More of that would have showcased the band themselves more beyond just the songs, and it’s a shame it’s an avenue rarely explored elsewhere. There’s one bonus track which gives us more dirty blues with an alternative Freedom Train, and we’re done.

Truth be told, as Weathers says in the booklet himself, this is more of a promising album than an overlooked classic, but there’s much here to enjoy, not least in the contextual view of a different side to John Weathers and a fascinating sub-branch of the Welsh Rock Family Tree. This is further emphasised by the fact that Graham Williams and singer Graham ‘Morty’ Mortimer went on to form the band Racing Cars in 1976, who recorded several albums as well as enjoying a UK hit single in 1977 with the song They Shoot Horses Don’t They, from their debut album. All in all, this is a very interesting time capsule which is also backed up by a good amount of excellent material, and is certainly worth a look, especially for any fans of Gentle Giant or Man, and certainly for any student of that fertile Welsh turn-of-the-70s rock scene. Though I still say it should have remained credited to Strawberry Dust…