April 27, 2022

There are no long epics among [the debut album’s] ten tightly composed tracks, but that matters not to an album which is utterly bursting with good, old-fashioned Golden Age prog rock. It is, genuinely, an unsung classic.

The list of worthy 1970s bands who have remained largely unsung and, worse, unheard by most people is a long and unfortunate one. Even within those annals of obscurity, however, there can be few bands more unlucky to find themselves in that unenviable position than Fields. As if to prove the veracity of that opening statement, a great many reading this will, at this point, be asking ‘who?’, and that would be entirely understandable as, until 2015, I myself was in that same position. Fields were, as an explanatory note to the band name, formed by keyboard player Graham Field in 1971, after he had left the early configuration of Rare Bird following a dispute over what must rank as one of the worst recording contracts of all time (fascinatingly delved into in the accompanying booklet). With Rare Bird having unusually featured two keyboards and no guitars, Graham was still unwilling to cede all of the spotlight to the six-string option, but not to the point of omitting he guitar altogether. Therefore he put together a three-piece band which, in a quite similar way to ELP, Andy McCulloch (fresh from King Crimson’s Lizard album) came in on drums while Alan Barry joined on guitar, bass and vocals. Concentrating more on bass than guitar, for live work he would play a double-neck to be able to switch from one to another mid-song.

The self-titled Fields debut album appeared on CBS records in 1971, and it remains a superb listen. It is more usual for a band flying so far under the radar to have produced recordings which tend to be described using words such as ‘promising’, ‘potential’ and ‘flawed but fascinating’. It is very unusual to find one such as this where the first (and only, for a long time) recording is absolutely the finished article. This is the work of a confident, varied and exciting band. There are ELP influences aplenty, unsurprisingly, with Field often drawn to the huge, heavily bombastic sound of Keith Emerson in full flight, but that isn’t the whole story. Opening track A Friend Of Mine is an absolute barnstormer of a beginning, with that massive Emerson wall of keyboard sound hitting the listener right between the eyes, before it settles down as it progresses, to be a perfect marriage of ELP with the very differently keyboard-led influence of Procol Harum. Indeed, the track contains a repeated two-line melody which is so close to the later Procol classic Pandora’s Box that it is hard not to imagine the late Gary Brooker casting an approving ear over this back in 1971, subconsciously squirrelling it away for reference! There is so much great stuff here – there is more driving ELP rock with the likes of Over And Over Again, but elsewhere there is the ecologically minded and thought-provoking Not So Good, the slightly psychedelically-swirling keyboard showcase Slow Susan, and the stunning showcase for Alan Barry’s guitar and vocals which is the beautifully moving Fair Haired Lady. The rather oddly folky Three Minstrels, telling of the titular trio who came ‘out of the sun’, one playing lute, one playing drums and one ‘the organ sound’, could almost be a tip of the hat to ELP, even if totally different musically. It’s off-kilter but still quite charming. The closing instrumental The Eagle is a big proggy conclusion, marred only by the oddly dissonant breakdown towards the end. The only weak moment on this otherwise superb album is the lugubrious and bluesy A Place To Lay My Head which, while initially pleasant enough, drones on in an increasingly dull manner.

There are no long epics among these ten tightly composed tracks, but that matters not to an album which is utterly bursting with good, old-fashioned Golden Age prog rock. It is, genuinely, an unsung classic. Four bonus tracks are added to this first of two discs, two of which are alternate takes of Slow Susan and, infuriatingly, A Place To Lay My Head – which is not at all improved. Far more interesting are two songs recorded for a BBC radio session (for Sounds Of The Seventies), which reveal just how good Fields might have been as a live force. A Friend Of Mine is possibly even more dynamic and forceful than the album version, while the non-album track Wouldn’t You Agree would certainly have turned the album into a near flawless gem had it ousted A Place To Lay My Head in the running order, as it is a great song which seems, scandalously, to be receiving its first ever release here, after five decades. A shocking situation – Wouldn’t You Agree…

A year later, in 1972, Fields returned to the studio to record the follow-up album, Contrasts (subtitled Urban Roar To Country Peace), referencing Graham Field’s relocating in the meantime from Battersea to a country residence in leafy Buckinghamshire. Alan Barry had sadly left the band in the interim, returning to session and solo work, which he preferred to the band dynamic, but he was more than ably replaced on the same instrumentation by Frank Farrell, who had come from an early line-up of Supertramp. Sadly, an ill wind swept through the CBS corridors before the album was due to be released, with new American owners coming in with a dismissive attitude to progressive rock in general, and Fields were informed in no uncertain terms that their services were no longer required and their music would not be released. The band then folded (McCulloch going on to join another twin-keyboard band in Greenslade, interestingly), and the album languished in the vaults until 2015 when it was finally allowed to escape into the public arena – and consequently your humble scribe being introduced belatedly to the band.

So, how is that would-be follow up in comparison to its excellent predecessor. Well, ‘not as good’, is the short answer. However, ‘still blessed with much in the way of strong material’ is the more positive longer one. Opener Let Her Sleep is another fine beginning, cut very much from the debut cloth again, and even the dismally-titled Wedding Bells following it up manages to be a very strong track. Storm is an impressive closer, while the profoundly depressing tale of The Old Canal (that old chestnut, tragic suicide of a loved one) packs an emotional punch whilst making you hang your head in weary sorrow. Put Out To Grass invokes the heady spirit of ELP again, while Wonder Why possesses a sprightly jazzy feel, and they are good, entertaining stuff. The weak material is poor though, with Someone To Trust being rather an over-earnest trudging plod and, worst of all, Music Was Their Game setting its sights on the quirky rustic Three Minstrels area again but spectacularly failing. It’s still a strong record overall, but my word, that bar was raised high by the debut. Three tracks recorded at the album sessions have been added, and all are reasonable efforts without any being especially memorable.

The release is nicely presented with a trifold digipak design (though the front cover image is not for the easily offended bunny-lovers among us, as the unfortunate animal is being swept away to its presumed doom by a rather fearsome looking bird of prey – presumably, the eagle of the first album). Having only previously been aware of the second album, discovering the quality of the debut release was an eye-opening experience for me, and I really cannot recommend it highly enough. All in all, this is two discs of quality vintage prog listening. Of all the myriad forgotten avenues and cul-de-sacs in the estate signposted ‘The Forgotten ’70s’, this is one of the best you could wish to find. Rediscover it, you won’t be sorry.