In the maelstrom of late ‘60s music, groups came and went with alarming speed, and those that lasted more than one album had to be deft at changing styles to match the rapidly developing nascent rock scene. Some emerged to be powerhouses of the ‘70s while many faded away undeservedly (and some deservedly, it must be said!). Blossom Toes were one of those that definitely fell into the ‘undeservedly’ category. The band released a debut album in 1967, We Are Ever So Clean – a pop/psychedelia effort that didn’t stand out from the pop/psychedelia crowd of the time. But, by 1969 the band was absorbing the heavy blues and early prog rock trends and that led to their second and sadly last album If Only For A Moment – a much more meaty and interesting affair. Thanks to Esoteric it has been remastered and expanded with bonus material into a three-disc set which allows us to revisit all the band’s output in that period and judge for ourselves whether this band would, if fate had not intervened, have grown to have the fame of many they shared the stage at that time with such as Barclay James Harvest and Fairport Convention.
The story of how the group transitioned from bland psychedelia to become a proto-prog band is detailed in the excellent and entertaining accompanying booklet, enriched by the recollections of the band members themselves. While the times were indeed changing fast, there’s also a candid admission that the We Are Ever So Clean album was so heavily burdened by orchestration and special effects that it was basically impossible material to play live. That forced them to change approach and the band vowed to only write material that they could play live. The core of the group remained unchanged during their brief existence: Brian Godding and Jim Cregan shared writing duties, lead guitar and vocals; Brian Belshaw played bass; and there was just a bit of musical chairs on the drums with Kevin Westlake leaving after the debut album to be replaced by Poli Palmer, who in turn only recorded one track on the sophomore effort before being replaced by Barry Reeves.
The first disc includes the remastered version of If Only For A Moment and a number of bonus tracks. It’s worth first mentioning two of the latter because they give a good sense of the musical metamorphosis the group were going through. The two songs in question were the A and B side of a single released in October 1968. The A side, called Postcard, is a popish Beatles-influenced track with a pleasant enough melody and excruciatingly trivial lyrics (‘when I go away, I like to send a postcard home, just to let my folks know I’m alright’. Very comforting for Mum and Dad!). While the psychedelic influences have just about disappeared, it remains a simple pop song. The B side, Everyone Is Leaving Me Now, was written by Palmer and is a more serious piece with a laid-back jazzy feel to the first part before Godding and Cregan start playing a solid riff (with echoes of Zeppelin’s Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You) and then soloing together over it. No pop music in sight here.
Palmer would play drums on just one song on If Only For A Moment but it’s probably the song that the group is best-remembered for: Peace Loving Man. As the earliest recorded song on the album, it still has traces of the earlier pop sound and as a result is slightly schizophrenic. It opens with a doom-like slow heavy riff with the vocal line following that riff exactly. The accompanying booklet rightly flags similarities to Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, which of course only came out a year later. Just like Sabbath’s track, the Vietnam war seems to have been the inspiration for the lyrics. But, unlike Iron Man, it has a sunlit poppish chorus, which is quite infectious but seems to be a bit of a hangover from their earlier pop influences. Imagine Iron Man suddenly veering into Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline and you’ll get the idea of how strange this sounds. It was released as a single prior to the album release but failed to chart, presumably scaring the punters away with the Iron Man section!
Peace Loving Man is the first of eight tracks on If Only For A Moment, all of which are quite substantial apart from one throwaway piece which is a cover of Richie Havens’ Just Above My Hobby Horse’s Head. It’s an anonymous and simple number but does serve to emphasise the depth of thought elsewhere as the band start experimenting with much more complex songs, changing moods and time signatures, and an overall bluesy rock feel. It’s fascinating to listen to some of the things that the album presages. For example, Kiss Of Confusion is built around a lilting theme played on harmonised guitars which not only puts Wishbone Ash in mind but very specifically the opening of Throw Down The Sword which sounds distinctly similar. That was all long before Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy made that dual harmonised guitar style famous of course. There are complexly structured songs, some of which seem to have been put together almost haphazardly, as Cregan describes well in the booklet when talking about Indian Sunset: ‘…there are all sorts of things going on musically in that song which really don’t need to be there to move the song forward, they were just ideas that we had and wanted to try out.’
Leaving aside the Havens cover, the material is consistently solid throughout. If I had to pick a highlight then, in addition to Peace Loving Man, the longest track Billy Boo The Gunman is probably the one. It’s got an infectious guitar hook that’s stutters along a little in the style of some of Page’s later work with Led Zeppelin. Godding explains how the lyrics emerged: ‘I wrote the song about the attitude of the US in general towards young people who might be activists, with the character of Billy Boo being a sort of representation of the whole thing. I was writing quite a few lyrics based on things I saw going on in the world, and that was certainly one’.
The second disc consists of recordings from live concerts. Admittedly, the quality here is bootleg level but it’s still a fascinating glimpse into their energy as a live unit. It opens with a short version of Indian Summer that was recorded at the Bilzen Festival in Belgium in August 1969. That was the same month If Only For A Moment was released so it’s a pity more of that concert didn’t survive. The remaining tracks are again from a festival in Belgium, this time at Amougies in October of the same year. It was a major event over five days with headline acts including Pink Floyd, Yes, and Ten Years After. Blossom Toes played on the third day, third on the bill behind Nice and Caravan. First up from the Amougies set is a song called Stargazer that was written by Shawn Phillips (who had contributed sitar on the Richie Havens cover mentioned earlier). It’s an anonymous jazzy piece which makes you wonder why they played it but the festival hosted a number of jazz acts too (those were the times of open musical minds!) so perhaps they were trying to play something for the jazz crowd. A ten-minute version of Peace Loving Man is next and it’s a fiercely heavy version with some good extended guitar work which is occasionally brilliant and occasionally just chaotic! Belshaw’s vocals come across so powerfully that it seems as if he’d invented the death metal growl, although I suspect it is just a reflection of the recording quality. One thing that makes the song work better than the studio version is that the chorus is suitably weighty, losing the popish feel in the studio version, and thus creating a much more coherent song.
The remainder of second disc consists of the lengthy three-part jam around the Ben E. King tune Groovin’. That third evening, the announcer was Frank Zappa (yes, the Frank Zappa) who came onto the stage as they were finishing their set and said he was ready to play with them. I guess that’s the sort of thing that happened in 1969! Anyway, Belshaw tells what happened next: ‘He [Zappa] said ‘here’s what I think we should do. You play this and I’ll play over it, and it will work well’. And he starts playing this wildly complex sort of guitar riff. He says ‘OK, now you play that…’ to which I’m thinking ‘Are you out of your mind? I’m exhausted here and you’re trying to get me to do that!’ So, instead we started playing an old Ben E. King number, which went on for a while as we improvised with it’’. It’s a great tale, and it must be said they made a good fist of the improvisation, however exhausted they were.
The third disc is entitled ‘Rarities & Demoes’ which neatly wraps up everything else available, even if musically it represents a bit of a mixed bag. There’s an early acoustic version of Postcard which, with all the over-sweet production eliminated, highlights the quality of the melodic writing. Perhaps of most interest are the two early versions of Peace Loving Man. The riff and verse/chorus are just about identical in both cases but there are significant changes in the instrumental sections. The second version is definitely a step up on the first and pretty much a match for the more concise version that was eventually released on If Only For A Moment. A surprise highlight is Marmalade Jam, a catchy little instrumental with delicate bluesy guitar and organ, which I assume was dedicated to their record label of the same name rather than their breakfast!
The third disc closes with an early demo of New Day which was eventually developed into an intended single (also here on disc one) that never saw the light of day. It’s a fine anthemic piece but sadly there was to be no new day to follow for the band. If Only For A Moment was a commercial flop and the last straw was a close shave with death when, returning from a gig in Bristol, the band’s car hit a patch of black ice, spun over onto its roof into the wrong lane and narrowly survived the oncoming traffic. They never even played another gig after that night. Given this album title, it’s ironic that Blossom Toes did only blossom for one single moment in 1969.
Glimpses of what we might have missed can be seen in the successful careers that all of them eventually pursued separately. Godding played with jazz/rock outfit Centipede and with French outfit Magma. Cregan played with Family and later with Rod Steward and Steve Harley. Reeves played drums for James Last and Belshaw joined up with Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. Sadly, both Belshaw and Reeves have since passed away, but this fine release stands as a worthy tribute to a set of very talented musicians.