January 7, 2023

They still sound fresh and fascinating today and they have certainly aged better than plenty of more illustrious material from 1970 (Atom Heart Mother comes to mind….).

It really was a lottery in the musical maelstrom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. With good breaks or good connections, a band could flourished, while other equally talented units simply didn’t have the luck or the stamina to fight on against the odds and they folded without having made any impact. Hard Meat certainly fall into this latter category, and yet if you listen to this recording then you’ll see that they didn’t have much to fear from their peers and their lack of success is something of a mystery. So, well done to Esoteric once again for digging up such a gem while at the same time embarrassing people like me who had never heard of Hard Meat before but claim to have some musical knowledge of the history of that period!

Hard Meat were a British group, formed in the Midlands, and consisted of Mick Dolan on guitars and vocals, his brother Steve on bass, and drummer Mick Carless. Like many musicians in the ‘60s, they played musical chairs in numerous bands before coalescing as Hard Meat in late 1968. Producer Sandy Roberton spotted them and became their mentor during their brief span of existence. It was Roberton who introduced them to Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records. They released a single for Island Records and recorded the material for an album which never saw the light of day before then signing for Warner Brothers and releasing two albums in 1970. At that point, Mick Carless quit the band and the two brothers, perhaps prematurely after less than two years together, decided to call it a day. Everything the group created is contained here in this three CD set, two containing the official Warner Brothers releases, and the third everything they recorded for Island Records.

The inner gatefold of the debut vinyl

Let’s start by looking at the first eponymously named official release. Debut releases around this period often showed a lot of musical uncertainty, amateurish production, and experimental twaddling but there’s almost none of that here. It’s a mature creation, perhaps helped by lessons learnt from the aborted experience for Island Records a few months earlier. The musical style is proto heavy rock but with many of the complexities and subtleties that would be latter recognised as progressive rock. As was also common at the time, the group freely mixed covers of other artists with original compositions. Of the two cover versions on the debut album, Dylan’s Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) doesn’t say anything of note compared to the original but Run Shaker Life is a much more interesting beast. The melody apparently originates from a religious song written by Issachar Bates in the early 19th century. Bates himself belonged to the Shakers – a Christian sect, hence the odd song title. Richie Havens had recorded the song in the late ‘60s in his usual acoustic style but here Hard Meat transformed it into a driving psychedelic ten-minute epic, underpinned by the sort of fast funky beat that Deep Purple would use effectively a handful of years later in You Fool No One.  

Of the self-penned compositions, Universal Joint is fairly dated and stuck in ‘60s psychedelia, but the remaining four tracks are a different kettle of fish. These four songs are all in different ways, proto-prog pieces. Perhaps surprisingly, acoustic guitars abound, and the way Mick Dolan cleverly interweaves electric with acoustic guitars is one of the trademarks of the group’s sound. The only song which gets near to what we would call a riff these days is Space Between, and even that is in a subdued bass-driven style (almost proto-Hawkwind, in fact). The slow acoustic and bluesy Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is one of the highlights in this set, managing to be impactful while remaining very restrained at the same time. Another highlight is the gorgeous ballad Time Shows No Face, an unexpectedly commercial ballad – perhaps a missed opportunity for a single, there. The remarkable thing about these songs is how little they have dated. They still sound fresh and fascinating today and they have certainly aged better than plenty of more illustrious material from 1970 (Atom Heart Mother comes to mind….).

The strange sleeve design of the second album

The second album, confusingly named after the opening track of the debut album(!), emerged just a few months later. Again, it contained both covers and original material. Of the three covers, the song Love is the one that is most of interest thanks to its cheerful harmonies, catchy guitar refrain and extensive use of the organ, all of which reminded me a little of early Uriah Heep. The upbeat and infectious opener, On The Road, hints at a move towards a more standard electric-guitar driven sound in their own writing although the remaining band compositions do continue the strong acoustic trend from the debut album. New Day is one of the highlights, a slow ballad with touches of flute that creates a dreamy atmosphere. There’s a fine jazzy middle section with acoustic guitar solo and listen out for the little falling guitar hook that sounds remarkably like a similar refrain in the Pink Floyd song Dogs. Smile As You Go Under and A Song Of Summer are two more strong tracks, and in both cases are much more upbeat and cheerful than the usual slow to middle pace adopted by the band. The album closes with The Ballad Of Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes, a rather overt attempt to write a hit single which deserved success, but (with the luck this band had at the time….) flopped. If nothing else, they deserve credit for tackling the story of Marmalade and Teddy who were real people – go and Google to find out more!

For any fans of Hard Meat who own the two Warner releases in their vinyl versions, the remastered versions presented here will be a fascinating listen, but those same fans will see the third CD as the icing on the cake. This set of material recorded for Island Records opens with what was the group’s first single, a cover of the Beatles’ song Rain. It’s pleasant enough but lacks the energy of the original, and it’s no surprise it didn’t chart. There are also covers of the two Dylan and Havens songs that were re-recorded for the eventual Warner debut album, with Run Shaker Life compressed to just four minutes. The final cover is an odd choice – the black protest song, Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday. It’s a decent stab at the song but Mick doesn’t quite have the voice of Billie!

The original material sounds a little rough around the edges. For example, Walking Down Up Street struts along in an interesting way but the unusual brass arrangement is a little too much to the fore. Burning Up The Years (which had been previously released as the B side of Rain) is the most interesting piece with a strong proto-prog feel, even if it does tend to meander a little over its six minutes. Don’t Chase Your Tail, a piano-led ballad with a fine melody, is the most mature sounding piece to these ears and maybe another missed opportunity as a single. Overall, this CD is a intriguing insight into the genesis of the subsequent material even if the decision not to release it in 1969 was probably the correct one.

As usual, Esoteric have done a fantastic job of remastering the material, and in the packaging. This includes a 20-page booklet with an extensive essay written by Steve Pilkington that charts the history of the band members before, during and after Hard Meat. Sadly, all three members have gone to that great gig in the sky, and their original mentor, Sandy Roberton, also passed away recently after having contributed towards putting this package together. So, this release is very much a testament to this fine group. The title of this comprehensive set may be borrowed from one of the group’s songs, but just listen to the music and you’ll also realise that there really wasn’t much space between Hard Meat and the top bands of 1970.