March 30, 2022

Stuff that appears under [the Grapefruit Records] banner is very often not so much ‘left-field’, as ‘over the touchline, into the stands, out into the car park and halfway down the motorway on the way home’. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Complex.

Things coming from the Cherry Red stable often tend to be of a certain off-the-beaten-track quirkiness and obscurity, which sees them not so much being reissued as dragged kicking and screaming into the sunlight shouting ‘The light! It burns!’ That’s one of the reasons I and many others love their reissue schedules, because just when you think you know it all about your favourite decades, along comes a discovery which demonstrates that there’s a lot more gold to be stripped from that particular mine before the seam runs anywhere near dry. That’s true of several of the Cherry Red imprints, of course – but when it comes to the Grapefruit label things get really serious. Stuff that appears under their banner is very often not so much ‘left-field’, as ‘over the touchline, into the stands, out into the car park and halfway down the motorway on the way home’. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Complex. And I’ll have to, because you, like most people, have very likely never heard of them.

Complex in 1970

Blackpool outfit Complex have actually released 198 albums. However, before you get excited, let me clarify by explaining that I mean exactly 198 discs pressed. In 1970, hoping to get a record deal, the band recorded and self-released their debut album. In a devastating example of DIY self-sufficiency, the album was recorded in a local pub with overdubs added later in the front room of guitarist Brian Lee’s house (or his mother’s house to be precise, as she was in fact managing the band). The credit on the original album to ‘107 Studios’ actually refers to the Lee house being number 107! Unleashing this homebrewed item on the world, they pressed precisely 99 copies, no more and no less, because putting out 100 or more would leave them liable to Purchase Tax. Several of these 99 discs were sent out to various record companies and the like, with the remainder sold at gigs. The result is one of the rarest vinyl albums in the world, with a copy of this self-titled album recently changing hands for the small matter of ten thousand pounds. Yes, that’s Ten. Thousand. The reason why it is so rare and collectable is that – you guessed it – nobody was interested in taking it on, so at 99 copies it remained. The main reason everyone passed on it was due to the fact that, in the fast-moving musical climate of that time, it was hopelessly out of date, essentially being for the most part a bright and breezy psychedelic pop-rock album which sounded completely rooted in the Sumer Of Love, 1967 – which didn’t cut it at all in the proto-prog, heavy rock, post-Altamont world of 1970. The fact that it was pressed on the cheap by a place in Scotland, who revealed the reason for their prices when they delivered it with appalling sound quality, didn’t help. The first disc of this 3CD set contains that album, and shorn of the attendant baggage of the dawn of the ’70s, it sounds just fine for what it is – a pleasingly retro-sounding album of nicely composed and played songs. Yes, it is a little heavy on the ‘incense and peppermints’ tweeness side of things – all chiming guitars, cheery vocals and harpsichord-like keyboards – but there are departures showing a more ambitious band struggling to get out. The heavier Green Eyed Lucy, the rather splendid Norwegian Butterfly, the dramatic Witch’s Spell and the closing, guitar-driven Live For The Minute are all real standouts, while Mademoiselle Jackie is a frankly baffling slice of French chanson straight out of the Moulin Rouge. There are tracks such as the cloying opener Funny Feeling, which makes the Archies’ Sugar Sugar sound like Steppenwolf with an aggressive hangover, but overall it’s a nice record. Five bonus tracks are added – four alternative versions of album tracks and a non-album take on Hush, which cannot help but be compared unfavourably to Deep Purple’s hugely successful version. And the unfavourable comparison is on the money in this case, as it is hopelessly ham-fisted, and as such it was a profoundly wise move to leave it off the album at the time.

At this point it is prudent to take a moment to consider, as previously touched upon, just how insanely fast the music scene was changing between the mid-’60s and the mid-’70s. This album was effectively buried and left in an ummarked grave for the heinous and unforgivable crime of sounding like 1967 in the Brave New World of 1970. Now, while that was a chasm in terms of changing trends and sounds back then, just try to transpose it to the present for a moment, and imagine a band in 2022 being castigated and deemed beyond hope of success or serious appraisal because they released an album which sounded as if it was recorded in 2019! It’s difficult to conceive nowadays, even for those of us old enough to have been around at the time, of a world which reinvented itself on such an insanely quick basis. It couldn’t continue, of course – and while similar ‘old hat’ arguments remained in the late ’70s when the punk and new wave scene denounced all of those unfortunate enough to have been making music way back in the mists of time eighteen months earlier to be ‘dinosaurs’, this untenable conveyor-belt of trends and musical wind-changes soon calmed down to a manageable level.

All of this didn’t help Complex, however, who surely must have made a mental note not to repeat that catastrophic career move of recording an album in 1970 which sounded like it was recorded in 1967 and pressing up 99 copies of it. Because indeed, it was all change the next year, when this time they recorded an album in 1971 which sounded exactly like it was recorded in 1968, and pressed up 99 copies of it. I think the phrase ‘you can’t help some people’ springs to mind. However, as with the first record, this follow-up (The Way We Feel) can be judged much more impartially now – retro-rock is big business in these times, and there are bands busting a gut to get this authentic late-’60s feel in their sound. So, how does it compare to the first record? Well, the answer to that is resolutely on the fence, as there are parts of the album which are far better than its predecessor, but by the same token there are others which are arguably much worse. Let’s look at the highlights first. There were slightly more progressive elements starting to creep in, with slightly longer songs such as Am I and We Don’t Exist proving a quantum leap forward from the first record. Lemon Pie Fair is undeniably by-the-numbers sugar-coated psychedelia-by-numbers, but somehow it manages to rise above this and be very enjoyable, purely by dint of its joyously carefree enthusiasm. The best track on the record is the closing If You Are My Love, which takes a riff very reminiscent of Race With The Devil by Gun and moulds it into a cracking guitar-driven rocker. There is another side to the album though, which reveals a seeming reluctance to break free of the bubblegum-psychedelia leanings which partially plagued the first record. More than this, however, there is organist Steve Coe’s bizarre insistence on half of the record to use what may be the worst keyboard sound I have heard for years, sounding like nothing so much as a fairground carousel-type calliope organ. The otherwise catchy and hit-worthy The Way I Feel in particular is catastrophically hamstrung by this wheezing steam-organ being plastered over the whole thing, which is very frustrating to say the least. Probably nowhere is the album’s dichotomy better illustrated than by the instrumental Moving Moor, which is such a game of two halves that it should break for a tray of oranges in the middle. It begins in stunning fashion, with a stately and moving melody which is worthy of prime Procol Harum – but just as the listener is luxuriating in this profoundly beautiful composition, enter Mr Coe with his steam pipe-organ again, killing the mood in a jaunty pop march. The track veers between these two extremes over its length, still managing to be a success overall, but less than it should be owing to this ill-matched mood change.

Of course, the 99 copies of this album (recorded for a change using the relative luxury of the whole upstairs floor of the pub, and pressed by a far more reliable outfit) still failed to gain the hoped-for record company attention, which is a shame in a way as the high points here are as good as a great many widely distributed albums of the time. But Complex never did get lucky. After this second failure, Steve Coe departed, taking his fairground accompaniment with him, and the band stepped into an exciting, if incredibly short-lived new phase in their journey through obscurity. Coe was replaced by Mike Proctor, a much more progressively-inclined musician, and this manifested itself immediately in a new, more weighty direction. But only for fifteen minutes. What happened was that this newly energised band cut an acetate album, though it was for some reason a ten-inch record lasting only 25 minutes. The first, fifteen minute side of this consisted of two lengthy tracks showcasing the new direction, with the oddly named No Title (We Don’t Know Yet) being over eight minutes of serious prog rock heft. Straight after that is the almost as lengthy To Make You See Me, which showcases some great instrumental prowess, and suddenly we have the best fifteen minutes so far. This being Complex, however, we are immediately hit with another ‘What the hell were they thinking’ moment, with the second side of the acetate consisting of covers of three hit singles. The first, Redbone’s The Witch Queen Of New Orleans, fits reasonably well with the prior two songs, but an earnest take on By The Time I Get To Phoenix, slightly less so. All bets are off after that, with the final track of the three being, for no reason which could ever be explained, Theme From Shaft. Yes, that one. To be fair, Brian Lee nails the cool wah-wah guitar extremely well, but the rest is pretty much as you would expect when four English guys from Blackpool try to be Isaac Hayes. Spoiler: they don’t. However, it IS worth a lot to hear the sublimely insane moment when our Lancashire heroes join together to replicate the high female backing vocals, intoning ‘Shaft!’. They don’t make them like that any more, and frankly, nobody else did then, either. The acetate recording was, naturally, never released.

Mid-’70s Complex, with manager ‘Mrs Lee’ next to son Brian

Having led the band into the first rays of a bright new dawn, Mike Proctor promptly left, following another crushing blow of fate as Complex reached the final of the Melody Maker National Rock/Folk Contest in 1972, only to controversially be defeated by someone who nobody has heard of since. With the disillusioned Proctor gone, replacement Keith Shackleton was recruited in surreal fashion when he walked into a launderette only to be accosted by Mrs Lee, who was in conversation with Brian in there for some reason, and asked whether he happened to play keyboards. An odd thing to ask a complete stranger, but even more oddly he replied that yes, he did, and he was signed up. It seemed as if fate might once again tempt our Blackpool Crew, as music publishers Honest Injun asked them to record another demo; they particularly liked Moving Moor, and so the band had to re-record that against their wishes, failing to improve it, along with We Don’t Exist. The third track they chose to record, unfathomably, was a hopeless pop effort called Teenybopper Joe – about a teenybopper kid whose name is … well, you know. Its chorus line of ‘he digs Donny Osmond, Slade and Cassidy’ surely marks the only time two of those names will appear in these virtual pages! It didn’t get them anywhere, though ironically it did land a publishing contract for the departed Steve Coe to rub salt into the wound. Following this they suddenly discovered a far better and more contemporary keyboard sound, with the synthesizer entering the fray, making the superior pop-rock tracks Rock And Roll Star and Smiley Anne two very good efforts indeed. The future beckoned again as Pye Records signed them up, and they actually got to release a major label single in 1976, which was to be Smiley Anne, had not Pye absurdly deemed it not good enough and instead put out a dishwater-weak funk-pop-soul concoction called Who Got The Love, which the band didn’t even write. Backed with the only marginally better She Turns Me On, whoever got the love it certainly wasn’t Complex, as the record received no promotion whatsoever, and sold a princely 2000 copies, presumably mainly in Blackpool. They were dropped like a stone, and that was the beginning and end of their major label recording career. The writing was finally on the wall even for these resolute souls, and after a handful of songs chasing whatever trends they could find with varying success, ending with a last flailing stab at the new wave market in 1978 with Dial 999, the Complex career was finally, fittingly, arrested.

There is no claiming that this is three discs stuffed with magnificent undiscovered gems, as plainly much of it is misfiring and faintly desperate, but by the same token there is a lot of good stuff here which could have led to much better things had Lady Luck at least put in the odd appearance. Think of it like this: the band’s two albums were essentially demo tapes dressed up with a cover and a title, and we have all heard enough original demos for great albums which leave us scratching our heads as to how on earth they got discovered on the strength of such weak first attempts. For Complex, those were the only attempts, and a combination of the best material on the two 99-copy albums – not to mention the excellent 10-inch acetate – recorded with the benefit of a proper studio and engineering setup, could have resulted in a very good album indeed, and who knows what that could have led to? Sadly for Complex, and their appalling string of bad luck, this never happened. One can only assume a string of black cats run over by their touring van, or a decision to walk under a couple of hundred ladders…