August 22, 2023

Dynamite 70s rock still highly listenable in 2023…

My abiding question through numerous listens to the two newly-reissued albums from Headstone is: Why is this band so unknown? When mentioning them to my fellow music-worshipping peers, I’ve been met with quizzical responses and even occasional hints of disdain; as though to say ‘They can’t be very good if I haven’t heard of them’. And I understand to a degree. We’ve all come across lesser-known bands or albums with a twinge of excitement, only to have our hopes dashed halfway through the opening song. Sometimes bands dwelled in such obscurity for good reason.

But Headstone is not such a band. Even before hearing a note of their music, their pedigree is impressive enough: members of Rare Bird and Atomic Rooster, produced by John Anthony (Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator, Queen, Roxy Music), recorded in famous studios Rockfield and Trident, artwork by Hipgnosis… all of the elements are there. So why have these albums escaped wider attention, even in an age when anything and everything is instantly available for our sampling and consumption? Good question, I suppose.

The hope here is that the efforts of Esoteric Recordings will shine a much deserved spotlight on this somewhat lost pair of albums. Both are newly remastered from the original tapes and officially released for the first time on CD in a nice little package, with an essay focusing on the history of the band and input from guitarist Steve Bolton.

The excellent Rare Bird was certainly well-known by comparison, with their 1969 hit Sympathy garnering acclaim and even giving them a touch of clout with their label Charisma, to whom they championed an as-yet-unknown Genesis (when those youngsters signing with Island was still in the realm of possibility). Rare Bird’s eponymous debut album and its follow-up As Your Mind Flies By remain timeless heavy prog classics, and easily rival their Charisma stablemates and other acts of the period. Upon leaving the band after Mind, drummer and founding member Mark Ashton made the unlikely transition to guitarist and vocalist, signing a record deal with EMI and putting together a project to record the new songs he had written. So rock historians take note: Dave Grohl was not the first to make this leapfrog move, it had been done a full 20 years prior.

Alternate North American artwork

Enter Bolton (Ashton’s newfound acquaintance and recent departee of Atomic Rooster), violinist Joe O’Donnell, and Phil Chen and ‘Chili’ Charles, a couple of international players from more varied musical backgrounds on bass and drums, and Headstone was effectively born. The resulting debut album Bad Habits from 1974 is a rollicking collection of rock songs spiced with funk, blues, and soul. Eagle-eyed readers will also spot harmony vocal credits for Ashton’s former Rare Bird bandmate Steve Gould as well as from Carl Douglas… yes, that Carl Douglas, who that very same year had a big hit with Kung Fu Fighting.

And what a sleeve! The cover is a cheeky play on words showing a nun with a lit cigarette dangling from her mouth (five years before The Monks blatantly copied both the title and artwork for their own album). Bad Habits shows some influences of the day rising to the fore, most notably on opening track Don’t Turn Your Back, with its Steely Dan and Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac vibes. The moody and memorable violin-infused Take Me Down is balanced by the upbeat High on You and the peppy conga flavours of Love You Too. The album also features Ashton’s Live for Each Other, a song that oddly enough was covered by his former band on their fifth and final album Born Again…now that’s something you don’t often see happen.

Among the album’s biggest highlights are Bolton’s lone composition, the groovin’ bass-driven jamfest 3 0 B (huh?) which showcases some tasty cymbal work, the brassy Take a Plane which exudes a big Stones aura, and the darker title track, which features Rare Bird’s Dave Kaffinetti chiming in with a lovely electric piano solo. The album is rounded out nicely with the Moody Blues-inspired You’ve Heard it All Before and the guitar-drenched closer D M T. Incidentally, there’s cracking drumming throughout from Chili, and it’s interesting that Ashton handed over the sticks to someone else, when he could have handled those duties himself in the studio.

The self-titled follow-up album in 1975 bore a striking logo on its otherwise simple cover, in fact a leftover design from Hipgnosis (who were famous for offering bands recycled ideas but claiming they were new). For this album – and the band’s first live dates – the dual guitarists shook things up a bit and brought in the more permanent rhythm section of Peter Van Hooke and Jerome Rimson, who quickly make themselves known on opening tracks Eastern Wind and Warm Sunny Days, the former a solid rocker and the latter a funkier affair that incorporates wobbly violin to great effect.

Less dominated by Ashton, the sophomore release features writing contributions from most of the band, like Bolton’s quirky (and wonderfully titled) Large Weather We’re Having, Lucy and Rimson’s Karma, which is firmly entrenched in a mid-70s bass and electric piano sound, inviting comparison to Return to Forever. The impressive Someone’s Gotta Give, too, breaks off into a section reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra, while All I Ask goes the other way as a balmy acoustic ballad with Juanita Franklin guesting on backing vocals. Bolton takes the lead vocal spots for the simpler Gyrosame and Searching Light, and Ashton’s Hard Road is a loose and honest blues-rock track. It all adds up to a terrific collection of riffs, styles, jams, you name it, but when viewing this package as two individual albums, I’d have to give the nod to Bad Habits as the more consistent beginning-to-end release. Either way, both albums are loaded with solid playing that gets the blood pumping and foot tapping, and though I’ve never heard the original vinyl LPs for comparison, I can say these remasters sound fantastic, especially turned up loud – the way it should be. There’s no ‘loudness war’ nonsense to be found here.

This set is a simple and reasonably priced digipack, unencumbered by frills. Good, I say. Not everything these days requires massive deluxe packaging; the music is the thing. I don’t know what’s looming on Esoteric’s horizon, but if they’re reading, I’d like to mention that Mark Ashton’s solo albums have never seen the light of day on CD, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my desire to further bolster that region of the ol’ collection. In the meantime, this Headstone two-fer hits the spot nicely, and will be getting a lot of spins around here. This is dynamite 70s rock that is highly listenable in 2023, and now I wonder… what else have I missed?