Did Fire deserve to have more success with this material? Listening to the three discs here, the answer is definitely a yes.
Take a moment to consider what is the worst pop single you have ever heard in your entire life. Got one in your head? Well, now go to YouTube and listen to Round The Gum Tree by Fire. I believe there’s a strong chance that your view of the worst pop single ever released may now change! Round The Gum Tree was a song that was so bad that even the band refused to play on it (they sang, presumably gritting their teeth while doing so). Melody Maker pulled no punches when they described it as ‘Unbelievable teenybopper rubbish… worst record of the year’. This sad tale sums up the story of a band that had huge potential but were so messed about by their record labels and managers that they sank pretty much without trace. But their memory was kept afloat thanks to one very good single (the oddly titled Father’s Name Is Dad), and the one concept album they produced, The Magic Shoemaker, both of which fetch large sums on the used vinyl circuit. It’s therefore excellent that we now have this three-disc set of absolutely everything the band ever recorded, giving us a chance to enjoy some very good material while reflecting on what might have been if they had received more sympathetic support from their management.
So, let’s start at the beginning. Three musicians from Hounslow in West London formed a band called Friday’s Chyld in 1966. Two of them are most likely unknown to you – Dick Dufall (bass) and Bob Voice (drums), but the third member was Dave Lambert of future Strawbs fame. Dave was the leader and played guitars and keyboards as well as taking the lead on the vocals. Playing the local pubs and clubs, the band began to gain a following and then a manager in the form of local reporter Ray Hammond. Thanks to Hammond, they got two recording sessions in 1967, producing four songs that are generously included in this release despite being pre-Fire. Those tracks show the influences of the time, and in particular the Beatles, but even at this stage, Lambert’s ability to write compelling melodies was evident. It was during these recording sessions that the band met local entrepreneurs John Turner and Derek Savage, who immediately ousted the unfortunate Hammond and the duo became the group’s new management team. Turner and Savage were responsible for getting a recording contract with Decca – on the back of an early version of Father’s Name Is Dad – and a publishing contract with Apple to boot. All looked rosy but Decca cooled to the band and it took pressure from Apple for Father’s Name Is Dad to be released as a single. Then in a bizarre turn of events, when the single was released Paul McCartney heard it, felt it lacked punch, and forced the band to add additional guitars and vocals! The single still failed to sell though. Both versions are included in this set so you can decide yourself whether McCartney was right or wrong. As Lambert notes in the fascinating booklet that accompanies this release, the song did subsequently influence many bands and there have been at least twenty cover versions of that song. Several other putative singles were recorded at the time, including the catchy Spare A Copper and the excellent Will I Find Love which was slightly ruined by the harmony vocals – added afterwards by the label without the band knowing about it! Mike Berry, head of Apple Publishing, kept rejecting these worthwhile songs but then came up with the ingenious idea that the band could do a cover of one of his own songs. Yes, that’s right: the Head of Apple Publishing thought he was a better songwriter than Lambert. And you have probably guessed correctly that Berry’s song was called Round The Gum Tree. The release failed to achieve anything apart from seriously damaging the reputation of the band.
At this point, Ray Hammond returned and got the guys a deal with Pye records. In early 1969 they started putting together pieces for what would become The Magic Shoemaker. Unfortunately, it took Pye until September 1970 to release it by which time its psychedelic blues sound was a tad out of date. With the failure of the album, the band eventually fell apart. Fast forward to this millennium and in 2006 the guys met up again and talked about staging The Magic Shoemaker – which they eventually did and recorded the gigs for posterity. That gig is the third disc on this release, with The Magic Shoemaker (plus demos) forming the second disc, while the first disc includes all the released or recorded (and unreleased) material including a further four outtakes from The Magic Shoemaker sessions. Yes, for once this is a complete set that is truly 100% complete! The running order of that first disc is quite cleverly done with those four outtakes flanked by the earlier pop recordings, and that emphasises the band’s attempt to mature into a serious blues-rock outfit, with The Who being the strongest role model. The most interesting of these four is without doubt the ten-minute Alison Wonderland which has an excellent melody, which returns triumphantly at the end after moving through various different sections. Lyrically it didn’t fit with the Shoemaker story so wasn’t included in the album but it’s a fine find here.
So, to the second disc, and the main course so to speak in the form of the concept album The Magic Shoemaker. First up, Lambert denies it was a concept album, at least in the way the term is used nowadays. Instead, he claims it was a straightforward fairy tale. It’s a fair point because there’s nothing of the gravitas of most concept album’s here. If anything, it’s closer to a pantomime as we hear the story of Mark the cobbler who manages to create magic shoes that give the wearer the power to fly. Mark generously lends them to his king who flies off to another kingdom to successfully avert a war. And they all live happily ever after. The light heartedness of the tale is enforced by the various spoken parts being recited by Lambert to a group of kids (apparently recorded ‘live’ at a birthday party in Walton-on-Thames!). Leaving aside the sub one-minute piece that opens and closes the album, and the sub one-minute but entertaining country jaunt that features Dave Cousins on banjo, the album proper consists of eight songs. Highlights amongst them are Tell You A Story with its memorable melody and strong psychedelic feel, the bluesy ballad Reason For Everything, and Shoemaker which has a fine melody and a lovely falling piano phrase. There isn’t really a throwaway track here but the musical ideas are damaged by the muddy production and the fact that Lambert’s voice is too high in the mix. Lambert’s voice is not bad, but his attempts to imitate Joe Cocker fall a little short. The demos on disc two are nearly all as good as the album versions, and sometimes better which implies that a decent production job could have turned the good musical ideas into a top-notch album. Disc two closes with a little oddity – a couple of tracks recorded by Lambert with two new companions in a failed attempt to keep the band alive after the failure of The Magic Shoemaker to set the charts alight. One of these is a track called Back There Again which has a catchy little guitar riff which to these ears sounds remarkably similar to Deep Purple’s Stormbringer. Blackmore was well-known for keeping his ears out for a good tune, of course, but in this case it must be a coincidence since this is the first time the song has seen the light of day. Well, that is unless Blackmore spent time in the basement of Pyre Records digging through the reels.
The third disc gives us all the songs of The Magic Shoemaker songs in the correct album order (but without the narrative thankfully) and neatly interleaves these with a lot of their other material, making it a celebratory affair of their brief career. The material from The Magic Shoemaker is in general improved. It loses some of the energy and psychedelic blues edge of the original but gains by being able to hear the instruments properly as well as highlighting some great harmonies in the vocals. The highlights of this live set for me were two very intimate pieces. The first of these is It Would Never Have Happened In My Days delivered by Lambert alone on vocals and acoustic guitar. The second is the closing song Mama When Will I Understand. There’s a version of this song on disc two in a grinding heavy blues format but here it is reduced to just Lambert’s voice, piano and some light synths, and it’s quite fabulously and emotionally delivered.
The question that inevitably arises is: did Fire deserve to have more success with this material? Listening to the three discs here, the answer is definitely a yes. With better management and better support in the studio, they might have achieved much more. But while the fates were against them, we at least now have a chance to savour their legacy.