The twelve-minute Reaffirmation … is another stunning exercise in ensemble playing, and really shows how good the band could be when on the top of their game.
Personally, I blame Man. For what, you may ask, and what relevance can a proggy Welsh band have to this review of a London-based bunch who hovered around the early pub-rock scene in the early 1970s? Well, what I blame them for is a decades-long curiosity I have harboured for the music of Help Yourself – something which until now has remained unsated. You see, in the ambitious cover artwork of their milestone 1972 album Be Good To Yourself At Least Once A Day – the huge fold-out ‘Man’s Map Of Wales’ was particularly impressive – they included on the inner sleeve a dense, scrawled ‘family tree’ of the band’s many different line-ups, roots and offshoots which they accurately entitled ‘Man’s Family Jungle’. Over to the side of this complex cat’s cradle of musicians, was a comment which read, for no discernible reason, ‘Oh all right then, we’d better mention them. The most boring band in the world, Help Yourself!’ At the age of fourteen or so, this simply fired my imagination. Who were this mysterious band? Were they REALLY the most boring band in the world? And if not, and this was in fact affectionate humour, were they really one of the BEST bands in the world? In those days, of course, mysteries like that weren’t easily solved – with no internet or YouTube on the horizon for decades, you didn’t come across anyone who had any inkling about an obscure band on a Man album sleeve, let alone any of their records. Of course, when YouTube and the online revolution did finally catch up with my by-now middle-aged self, the need to find out about ‘the most boring band in the world’ had receded somewhat, and somehow I never got around to trawling for them. However, like a serendipitous bolt from the blue, those remarkable curators of dreams at Esoteric Records suddenly announced this six-disc box of EVERYTHING ever committed to record by Help Yourself. It was immediately my playground calling to me, and I eagerly dived onto the roundabout to see where it took me.
So, was the answer ‘the most boring band in the world’ or ‘the most fascinating band in the world’? Well, predictably with the reality versus the teenage imagination concerning these things, the answer is ‘neither of the above’. How could it not be? However, of the two extremes, this often great and mostly fascinating collection certainly veers closer to the latter than to the former – albeit with some notable lapses as we shall see! The six discs here contain all of the four albums (one a double) that the band released in the ’70s, a fifth album unreleased for thirty years until it was completed by the older and much wiser musicians, and finally an also long unreleased solo album by main man Malcolm Morley. Also popping up are various singles, sessions and B-sides, and a couple of excellent live recordings from a very rare and obscure album entitled Christmas At The Patti which they shared with a few artists including – yes – Man. Let’s start at the beginning, and the band’s self-titled debut from 1971…
At this point it’s fair to say that Help Yourself were very much finding their feet, and their identity. The key influence on this folk and country-rock influenced album is clear: they really, really wanted to sound like Neil Young. And they do. Even to the point of having a song entitled Old Man – albeit not a cover of the Young original. Malcolm Morley’s voice conjures up the slightly weathered, yearning tone of Neil at every turn, and the songs generally offer the same direction. All of which isn’t to say it’s a poor album – indeed, on the contrary it’s a very entertaining record throughout, with the aforementioned Old Man, the slightly more left-field To Katherine They Fell and the closing Street Songs all very much highlights. Probably the only letdown on the record is, oddly enough, the opener – a traditional gospel-type song called I Must See Jesus For Myself which sets wholly inaccurate expectations for what is to come with the rest of the songs. As odd choices of opener, especially for a band’s first album, it’s certainly up there with the most baffling. All in all the record is a good start, but there’s definitely a sense of a band playing safe, without the courage yet to spread their musical wings and really express themselves with a sense of freedom. Enter the second album…
By the time Strange Affair was released in 1972, Help Yourself had begun their on-off association with Man by touring Switzerland with them, as a package rather ironically named ‘The Good Clean Fun Tour’. The Strange Affair album showed the band broadening their musical horizons considerably, with departing bassist Ken Whaley being replaced by Paul Burton, but also two more guitarists, making the band now a six-piece, three guitar line-up. It was immediately apparent that something was changing with the appearance of a ten-minute track entitled – deep breath – Excerpts From ‘The All Electric Fur Trapper’ (Soundtrack From The Film Of The Novel). It was clear that we were getting away from the Neil Young / Buffalo Springfield arena now. Living up to its name, the track is a psychedelic prog rock triumph, all over the place yet conversely holding together perfectly. It’s the best track on the album, and a highlight of the band’s career, but it was far from alone on a record with much quality about it – most notably the closing piano ballad Many Ways Of Meeting and the almost six-minute Movie Star, featuring some lovely understated guitar work in the jam-sounding arrangement. It was a step up, but it’s probably true to say that album number three, Beware The Shadow, was another improvement still.
This third album again features two extended tracks giving full range to that jamming, instrumental side of the band on an album which moves closer than ever to the Man sound. After opening with a neat country-rocker called Alabama Lady, the album takes an abrupt left-turn into the twelve-minute Reaffirmation, which is another stunning exercise in ensemble playing, and really shows how good the band could be when on the top of their game. Just as good is the eight-minute American Mother, harder rocking but still jam-tastic, and co-written by future Ducks Deluxe / Tyla Gang pub-rock legend Sean Tyla, who was a roadie for the band at that time. Other highlights are the great hit-that-never-was She’s My Girl (championed by Bob Harris at the time) and the lovely closer Passing Through. The only real blot on this excellent musical landscape is the ghastly drunken sing-along Molly Bake Bean, which remarkably is even worse than its title. I’m quite certain that at the time it seemed hilarious. To the beleagured listener, less so – and its position right in between She’s My Girl and American Mother is quite baffling. Still, it’s short at least! In addition to this, the best of the band’s albums to my mind, the third disc of this collection also has the two live tracks which the band contributed to the aforementioned Live At The Patti release – bizarrely and somewhat ludicrously in the format of a double ten-inch vinyl album! Accompanied by pedal steel player BJ Cole and also Deke Leonard (then on a hiatus from Man, having been sacked, yet still on the bill with them), the lengthy take on the standard Mona is inessential if pleasant, but the fourteen-minute Eddie Waring is quite brilliant. Named after the erstwhile Rugby League and It’s A Knockout commentator in utterly random fashion, it’s possibly the finest example of unashamedly joyful jamming in evidence here, and a marvellous find. There are also the two sides of an inexplicable single release, being a Neil Innes-penned country parody called Mommy Won’t Be Home For Christmas backed with a dull plod through Johnny B Goode, which would be better titled Johnny B Adequate. Still fascinating artefacts to include regardless of quality, however.
Following this, Sean Tyla quit the band’s crew, realising he would never become a full member, and promptly took half of the band with him to form Ducks Deluxe. However, this paved the way for the return of Ken Whaley. A fact which the band commemorated by calling their fourth album, imaginatively, The Return Of Ken Whaley. Well, it’s accurate, anyhow. The album actually came out as a double, together with another entitled Happy Days. The reason for that one was that the band joined forces with another ex-Man man (sorry!), Martin Ace, who, with his wife, was performing as The Flying Aces. The ‘Happy Days’ show which they took on the road was a theatrical extravaganza of sorts – featuring a man in a rabbit suit incidentally – and the album features music from the show recorded with Martin and some other guests in the studio. In fact, both of the albums in the double set (here on one disc but in a nice reproduction gatefold sleeve) contain some excellent material. The Ken Whaley album is the pick of the two, with such highlights as the acoustic based Pioneers Of The West In The Head, the forceful Blown Away and Man We’re Glad To Know You – which is surely a punning title, as it sounds more like Man than any other song the band did. There is also another twelve-minute wig-out It Has To Be, though that loses marks after a superb opening eight minutes for descending into four final minutes of avant-garde sound collage which serves no discernible purpose. It Didn’t Have To Be, in actual fact. The closing The Golden Handshake is another proggy piece, with a hint of mid-period Pink Floyd about it, and finishes an album only just below Beware The Shadow in overall quality. Happy Days is patchier, with some of the live show’s spoken word excerpts punctuating a varied set of songs from the lush psychedelia of Seashell to the driving rock of I’ve Got Beautiful You and the riotous sing-along boogie of Elephant By My Side. My Friend is a nice track, though not the eight minutes promised, as over two of those minutes are surreal spoken-word sections (sample: ‘He drew closer. But it wasn’t a very good likeness of Closer, as he wasn’t a very good drawer’).
Following that release, Morley and Whaley both jumped ship in order to join – perhaps inevitably – Man, with the returning Deke Leonard – taking American Mother into the Man set with them for good measure. They went on to appear on the classic Rhinos Winos And Lunatics album, but without Morley the Help Yourself game was up. There were recordings which had been made in the meantime, however, and in 2002, amazingly, the band reunited to finish off the work-in-progress songs, which were then released as the album Help Yourself 5. In the only line-up change, the drums on the album were contributed by a certain Kevin Spacey, which we can probably assume to be a different one! Mostly it’s a professional yet unexciting collection, as the rough edges are somewhat smoothed off, although all is saved by the final two tracks, the harder-edged Alley Cats and the wonderfully bizarre prog of Duneburgers, where the best guitar work on the album by some distance can be found. Three BBC sessions and a demo from 1972 are also included, of which yet another trudge through Johnny B Goode and an unreleased Morley composition called Let It Roll are for completists, but happily there is one more extended jam, with the eight minute Half Breed which summons up that old magic again. Lastly here, there is a real treat, at least if you happen to be one of those people who have always been frustrated that, rock standard though it is, Johnny B Goode has never featured enough reindeer. It’s your lucky day, as Ricky The Reindeer is a rewrite of the track, telling the story of a reindeer, named Rick (as they so often are) who becomes a rock star. He drives a red sports car, apparently, though no explanation of how he manages it with the hooves is provided. The chorus becomes ‘Go Santa, Go Go Go’, and Santa ends up offering Ricky a contract whereupon he becomes the leader of Santa’s band. It’s utterly ridiculous, and musically of little perceivable merit to say the least, but it’s perversely irresistible!
Finally, to round things off, is a previously unreleased Morley solo album entitled Lost And Found – because it was lost, and now has been found, unsurprisingly. Containing a couple of tracks also on the 5 album in different versions, it continues the smoothing effect of that album to a further level, and suffers a little as a result. It’s all nicely done, but it never really excites. It’s a nice bonus to finally have seeing the light of day, however, and devotees of 5 will probably find much to recommend it.
All in all, this is a marvellously put together set. The individual reproduction sleeves are beautifully done, there’s a nice poster containing a collage of memorabilia, and the booklet is astonishingly detailed. For anyone who was a fan back in the day, or anyone like me who may have harboured a long unsatisfied curiosity, perhaps from that same old Man album sleeve, it’s absolute gold dust. All this time, I knew it – Help Yourself weren’t the most boring band in the world by a long chalk – but I’d like to very belatedly thank Man for putting that throwaway comment in. 45 years on, I’ve answered my question – and got some fine music into the bargain. It may be an obvious tagline, but help yourself to this…