[St Johns] is pretty much the sound you would expect if Ian Anderson had elected to split Jethro Tull after Aqualung and join Uriah Heep instead.
Another day, another Esoteric reissue from a band I’d never heard of! This one is baffling, however, as a good proportion of this album is right in the wheelhouse of the kind of stuff I loved back then and still do now! Granted, Duffy is not the most inspired choice of band name (especially when no-one in the band is even named ‘Duffy’!), and if that name is chosen, Scruffy Duffy really isn’t the way to go for your album title. Really guys, no! Mind you, considering this was their second album, and their debut had the alluring title of Just In Case You’re Interested, they did have form in that area. Frontman Stuart Reffold, interviewed for the accompanying booklet, now claims to have no memory of why the band name was suggested, nor why the album title came to be. Come to that, he also has no recollection of why the front cover shot, taken in a barn, used a cat and a rabbit as ‘props’. This was the early ’70s, kids. Things happened, and you very often didn’t remember why – and sometimes that was for the best!
Anyhow, let’s look at the album. Not having heard the debut, I can’t make a comparison, but I will say that this record is far too good to have sunk without trace, whatever its title. Containing ten tracks – which are effectively nine, given that the closing Finale is 30 seconds of the band thanking you in bizarre semi-poetic form for buying their album. Once again, the ’70s. People did these things. Of the remainder, seven are relatively short, sub-five minute songs which are a little of a mixed bag, ranging from the cracking hard rocking opener Running Away, the funky-riffing Joker and the Uriah Heep drive of Banker down to The 1959 Rock ‘n’ Roll Bop, which is only marginally better than its title, and Ode To Clay, written about Italian Formula One Driver Clay Regazzoni and only partially working. The two best moments by some distance are the two longest tracks. The six minute Changing My Ways moves between delicate verses, big choruses and a rampaging conclusion driven by a beast of a Hammond organ in a way which makes it so representative of the whole early ’70s part-prog part-heavy rock identity that it could form the soundtrack to a documentary about the period. It’s overblown, it’s dated, and NONE of that is a negative. I love it, warts and all. As ‘buried treasure’ time capsules go, this one takes some beating.
Just as good, and in fact possibly even better, is the nine-minutes-plus St Johns, with a lyric about a village church of that name, its history and the people who preached and worshipped there. Once again going right across the board, including some tremendous vocal block-harmonies, the track is pretty much the sound you would expect if Ian Anderson had elected to split Jethro Tull after Aqualung and join Uriah Heep instead. If you think that sounds like an imagining of a deranged mind, this probably isn’t for you. If, however, like me you think ‘now that’s a sound I’d like to have heard!’, then come right in, folks. It’s 1973 and the Watneys Red Barrel is lovely! The only slight negative about the track is an infuriating false ending put in towards the end when, just as you are really getting into the steamrollering conclusion, it fades all the way out to silence, only to start fading up again a few long moments later, for a final minute or so which is broken up and robbed of its power. Baffling decision – given the choice I would edit the whole fading section out – but it is still a classic piece of prime powerful proggy ’70s rock, and deserves to be heard.
There are five bonus tracks, which are actually much better than you would expect. The three ‘early versions’, of Rock ‘n’ Roll Bop, Banker and Joker are all much rawer and more powerful than the released versions, and the former in particular is much, much better. Add to that two alternate mixes, including one of St Johns which almost entirely dispenses with the horrible false-fade, and you have a fine package. Oh, and I must not overlook The Browns, the amusing yet quite effectively rocking story of a particularly idle farmer, which contains the timeless refrain ‘Your husband is a lazy man / So try to do the best you can / To kick his fat old carcass out of bed’. Hey, I sympathise with the guy, what can I say??
Nobody would try to claim that Scruffy Duffy is a masterpiece of ’70s rock to put alongside Machine Head, Demons And Wizards or Led Zeppelin IV, of course – least of all the band themselves. It is, however, a record of significant quality, and really deserves to be heard. In the final analysis, it was probably a little too varied for its own good, and if it had been full of longer pieces following the template of those two highlights it might well have found itself a readier audience. It also probably didn’t help that the original label, Chapter One records, was an eclectic organisation to say the least, with Duffy rubbing shoulders with the likes of child-star and talent show winner Lena Zavaroni and, for some godforsaken reason, a double act consisting of wrestler Jackie Pallo and his wife! That wasn’t exactly going to have focused marketing, was it?
But one of the great things about that time was that bands could often record pretty much what they liked within reason, without too much label or management interference, and thank God for that magic era of musical experimentation! Give this a go. Scruffy maybe, but it remains a tidy old listen…