The British blues boom of the 1960s was one of those events that turned popular music on its head. Whilst the blues had always been the preserve of black American singers, guitarists and harp players, suddenly a new sound began to emerge, headed up by young white guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jeff Beck et al. Inevitably, the sound evolved, with the white kids adding a splash of flash, with their fuzz boxes and their wah pedals. Fleetwood Mac stuck more-or-less to a traditional, raw blues format, whilst Beck and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, with Clapton on the axe, took the sound into rockier territory, forging a sound that would become blues-rock, the mainstay of a million pub bands. A number of notable acts flew in the slipstream of these megastars; Alvin Lee’s Ten Years After, Kim Simmonds’ Savoy Brown, and Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack to name a few.
Like Savoy Brown, which was basically an umbrella name for Kim Simmonds and whomever he happened to be playing with at the time, Chicken Shack became Stan Webb’s brand name, undergoing any number of line-up changes from their first album in 1967, through to the new millennium. The Shack’s other main claim to fame was as the breakthrough band for a singing piano player named Christine Perfect, who left to join Fleetwood Mac, married their bass player, and became the soft rock sensation Christine McVie.
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Stan Webb, meanwhile, started to move Chicken Shack away from its white-boy blues roots into the blues rock arena, forming a power trio with John Glascock on bass and Paul Hancox on drums, and struck a deal with Deram records. It is their three-album run for Deram that is the focus of this new 3-CD boxed set from the prolific Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint, entitled Crying Won’t Help You Now – The Deram Years. The first album in the set, the 38-minute Imagination Lady from 1972, is bolstered to 44 minutes by the inclusion of the two cut-down singles Poor Boy and Telling Your Fortune, both of which are also included as full-length numbers on the album. It opens with the number Crying Won’t Help You Now, which uses almost the same backing riff as Fleetwood Mac’s Long Grey Mare, but aided and abetted by some mad double-kick drumming and a lot of wah guitar. Webb is a fine guitarist and a great singer, but it can already be heard that he has moved a long way from blues numbers such as See See Baby on the band’s first album. The self-indulgent seventies are also well-represented by the 11-minute full album version of Telling Your Fortune, which morphs from heavy pub blues via an extended drum solo, into a slow blues riff with various rhythm changes as it goes on. This is not to criticise drum solos – in fact Hancox’s rapid-fire hi-hat work is stupendous, and there’s no reason at all why he shouldn’t have his day in the sun – but still, this kind of thing was rarely popular even in the day, and sounds well out of fashion nowadays.
This would be the climax of the album, but for a two-and-a-half minute psychedelic pop song named The Loser which concludes the main set, followed in this edition by the two bonus singles. When Telling Your Fortune is cut down for radio play, it only just breaches two minutes.
Reconvening for the following year’s Unlucky Boy album, Glascock was replaced on bass duties by Bob Daisley, who would become better known for stints with various hard rock acts, notably Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Pianist Tony Ashton (later of Paice Ashton Lord) was also drafted in, and the addition of saxophone and strings filled out the sound somewhat. Nevertheless, after a pounding start with You Know I Could Be Right, the bulk of this album is pretty restrained. Prudence’s Party is a jolly instrumental, not unlike Danny Kirwan’s Jigsaw Puzzle Blues for Fleetwood Mac, but Revelation and Too Late To Cry are both as lyrically grim as they come. For my money, this set is pretty derivative – the title track dusts down a hackneyed riff that makes it sound too much like Riot In Cell Block Number 9 for comfort, while As Time Goes Passing By is heavily influenced by Fleetwood Mac’s Need Your Love So Bad. Nevertheless, it picks up considerably at the end, with the funky piano of the seven-minute Jammin’ With The Ash, which really starts to rock for the final minute, before fading out, then in again, then back out, in a nice bit of musical theatre. The bonus track He Knows The Rules is a slice of good old-fashioned Chuck Berry style Rock and Roll, while the final track is the single version of As Time Goes Passing By, with a minute knocked off the length of the album version.
The third and final disc puts the whole project in perspective really – a 1974 live album named Goodbye Chicken Shack that ended the band’s tenure with Deram, as Chicken Shack temporarily folded and Webb was drafted into Savoy Brown as a second guitarist, an unexpected outcome that Webb explains at length in the accompanying 24-page booklet. The blues-rock genre seems to be designed for live performance rather than anything else, and this live set puts the others in the shade in some ways. A completely new line-up of Rob Hull on bass, Alan Powell on drums and Dave Wilkinson on piano joined Webb at Brunel University in London for the band’s final hurrah. The performance is cut down to 48 minutes including the encore, and selects a number of classic blues standards alongside some self-penned numbers. The record opens with BB King’s Every Day I Have the Blues, which includes band introductions and a lot of audience clap-and-sing-along, making it sound more like a closing number than an opening one. Webb keeps up the good-natured banter throughout, and it builds to a climax with a hard rocking version of Poor Boy, which is the last real number on the album. This is followed by a pretty bizarre cover of a Bert Weedon rock’n’roll instrumental called Guitar Shuffle, then Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti for an encore. There is nothing particularly sophisticated about the set, but regular attendees at 1970s smoky pub gigs will be transported back to a simpler time, helped on their way by some tremendous booklet notes by Mark Powell. And that, perhaps, is the point – it was possible then for a band to transfix an audience without any of today’s technical flash, while also building a platform that later bands would build on. Chicken Shack deserve to be recognised for their contribution to that foundation.
Chicken Shack – Crying Won’t Help You Now – The Deram Years (1971 – 1974) will be released on 22 June 2022 through Cherry Red Records