December 28, 2023

In 1968, drummer Ginger Baker, as part of Cream, was in the UK charts with the heavy blues of Sunshine Of Your Love. In 1982, Adrian Gurvitz made the UK top ten with his exquisite pop ballad Classic. Those two memorable love songs are million miles apart in style and it seems remarkable that mid-way between those dates, Baker and Gurvitz were in the same band. The gory details of their musical history are explained in the excellent booklets accompanying these two new releases but in a nutshell: the Baker Gurvitz Army were a supergroup with guitarist Adrian Gurvitz and his bass-playing brother coming from Three Man Army (and prior to that, The Gun), and Baker via his Airforce ensemble after stardom with Cream. Note the list of militaristic names – so much for peace and love, man!

The band’s self-titled debut album, a mix of blues and R’n’B with progressive elements, made by the trio mentioned above, came out in 1974. The band then added a singer (Mr. Snips, a pseudonym for Steve Parsons) with an eye to having a frontman to tour with, and a keyboard player Peter Lemer, classically trained and with a jazz background. This five-man format put together Elysian Encounter, considered the band’s high-water mark and most progressive recording, even if it only reached 165 on the UK charts in 1975. That failure to chart may have been the reason for a more commercial approach in 1976’s Hearts On Fire but the cracks were beginning to show and the band then split.

Adrian Gurvitz with colourful guitar
Baker enjoying another drum solo….

If you look at the group’s touring history, they didn’t play as a three piece in 1974 and only did a handful of gigs in 1976. In between though, the band relentlessly went the length and breadth of the UK to try and build their fan base. The fact that they were only effectively a touring band in 1975 makes these releases a definitive retrospective of the group as a live unit.  Fans of the band might already be familiar with the Live 1975 set which belatedly saw the light of day in 2005 and contained almost an hours’ worth of music recorded at Reading University in February 1975. This was one of their earliest gigs and it is an electrifying performance, far from the rather staid studio work and helped by the crystal-clear remastering job done by Esoteric. Three relatively short pieces kick off the gig:  the catchy and soulful Wotever It Is (which undeservedly never made it onto a studio album); the languid ballad The Gambler; and an impressive run through of Hendrix’s Freedom with Mr Snips imitating Hendrix’s voice rather well and Adrian Gurvitz gleefully showing that he could play equally fast too. These are followed by three broad ten-minute pieces – here we are into that classic ‘70s live album territory of stretching songs out into lengthy jamming sessions. In the first two cases, 4 Phil and Remember, this works brilliantly. Gurvitz’s guitar work is impressively fast although personally I wish he could have slowed it down more and added a bit more feeling. In the slow bluesy beginning to 4 Phil, someone like Blackmore would have had you hanging on every note, but Gurvitz can’t quite pull off that trick. Remember is probably the highlight of this set and there is some gorgeous interplay between Gurvitz and Lemer. It is Lemer’s tendency to drift towards a jazz sound that gives this group a unique live sound and makes these longer efforts so interesting. Baker has to get into the act, of course, and he takes every opportunity to rattle his drums at breakneck speed. Unfortunately, the scintillating version of Memory Lane is interrupted by a six-minute drum solo. OK, percussionists will insist it’s a high-quality drum solo, but most rock fans groan at such a prospect! The set is closed by the excellent and very funky People, a song very much in the style that Glenn Hughes was promoting around the same time. Overall, the Live 1975 set demonstrates that the Baker Gurvitz Army were one of the most powerful, inventive, and skilled live rock bands around in that year. It’s not a surprise that there was such a buzz around the group in 1975. 

 This Esoteric release is completed by a further four bonus tracks purportedly recorded at The New Victoria Theatre London. I say ‘purportedly’ because at the end of Hearts On Fire,  Mr Snips or Baker shout out ‘Grazie. Thank you very much Milano!’. In any case, the brief Help Me is the only bonus track that is up to the quality of the Reading set. The run through of Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love is fairly average and the less said about the track entitled ‘drum solo’, the better! If you skip the fifteen minutes of Baker playing with his drum kit, then Live 1975 is one hour of scintillating ‘70s rock. Just like Deep Purple’s Made In Japan, it shows remarkable power and intensity compared to the studio versions of the same songs.

The Neon Lights set is a much more extensive release. Two of the five discs are DVDs of performances at the BBC and on Musikladen (a West German TV programme), but here I’ll focus on three audio CDs since they are very much the companion pieces to the Live 1975 release.  The first CD consists of a BBC In Concert broadcast from the BBC Paris Theatre in London. This most likely took place just a week after the Reading concert, but despite the presence of a sizeable audience (the theatre held around 400), it has a very different feel to the Reading gig – less of a spontaneous live event, and more of an overt promotion for the new album. Remember remains one of the standouts despite being trimmed down to just over eight minutes here as the band manage to squeeze nine tracks into less than an hour.  Highlights from Elysian Encounter include the funky energy of The Hustler and the prog tinged The Artist. There’s also time for the barely released single Space Machine which has a nice catchy groove about it, and (rather oddly for a single) it is the one song where they improvise most.      

The remaining two audio CDs document the concert that took place at the King’s Hall, Derby, on 21 October 1975 and broadcast by Radio Trent. The quality is good, albeit slightly inferior to the Reading set. After nearly a year honing this material, some of it is impressively tight and well played such as the opening salvo of The Hustler and Space Machine, and the energetic version of Inside Of Me. Remember is stretched out to fourteen minutes, the extra length generated by the atmospheric keyboard solo that starts the piece, but it lacks the strong climax of the Reading version. Memory Lane is also weaker than the Reading version thanks to an even longer Baker drum solo and no reprise of the main theme. Despite being a less consistent set, the band close in style with a cheerful version of Time (as close to a singalong anthem as the band could get!) followed by an equally upbeat ten-minute jam called Going to Heaven. Within a few months, the band would indeed have figuratively gone to heaven due to friction between band members, continued failure to make a commercial breakthrough, and the final blow being the death of their manager Bill Fehilly.

As a touring act, the band had barely lasted a year, and we are fortunate that so much was put down on tape at the time and has now been lovingly restored and packaged by Esoteric There’s plenty to enjoy in the Neon Lights set for hardcore fans of the band. But, if Baker Gurvitz Army are new to you, then Live 1975 is the best place to dive in to discover their music. Hopefully, it will be an elysian encounter for you….