November 6, 2023

That sophomore album, and especially the epic Saneonymous, should have guaranteed High Tide prog rock immortality….

If we are perfectly honest then most of the music that has been created and then completely forgotten about deserves that fate. But eager musical beavers keep on digging into the archives in the hope of finding that long lost classic album by an obscure band. Those long-lost classics are few and far between, but they do emerge, and High Tide is one of those obscure groups that were completely unknown to me before hearing this three-CD set of everything that they produced. The very small circle of High Tide fans seems to consider their debut album as a lost classic, and its follow-up as a disappointment. but to these ears it is the three-track sophomore album that’s the genuine lost classic. But let’s dive in and take a look at both of them.

If the name High Tide rings a distant bell in your memory, then that’s most likely because they had Simon House in their ranks – several years before he went on to fame with Hawkwind and Bowie. As well as House, the band consisted of guitarist Tony Hill who had been the British rhythm guitarist in the influential American outfit The Misunderstood, bassist Paul Pavli, and drummer Roger Hadden. The group came together in 1969 and released Sea Shanties in October of that year. The opening Futilist’s Lament is a bit of a shock on first hearing; it’s violently heavy and based around a fearsome guitar riff, not dissimilar to Sabbath’s NIB. It’s imbued with that late ‘60s busy-ness so Hill not only plays the riffs in a typical distorted psychedelic style but he also solos almost endlessly at the same time. House is playing organ and violin, and Hadden seems to be thrashing away on the drums without pause. It’s slightly chaotic but when it comes together (for example in Hill’s brilliant solo around the midway mark) it’s quite brilliant. Lyrically, it has an ecological spin, with some direct messaging that might even make Greta Thunberg blanche (‘Mother Earth sees the bird shitting all over her’ is one of the best!).

Death Warmed Up is an outstanding instrumental and a highlight of the album. It thunders along with a Hawkwind-style riff (sounding pretty close to Brainstorm actually), and the interplay between Hill and House is excellent, with House’s violin playing a surprisingly prominent role. It lasts over nine minutes but could have gone on for longer without outstaying its welcome. Listen out for the repeated guitar phrase just after the two-minute mark where I’m sure Hill is playing a joke on listeners because it sounds exactly as it would if the stylus on the record player was stuck at the same point. A second attempt at a nine-minute song in a similar heavy jamming style, called Missing Out, disappoints. It seems to be a variation on the NIB riff again but it’s slower, sluggish, and unfocused and the superfluous twenty second drum solo is the nail in its coffin.

High Tide: (left to right): Hill, Pavli, House (back) and Hadden

In contrast to those longer pieces, there are two songs that appear to be attempts at something more commercial. Pushed, But Not Forgotten starts with whimsical violin and there’s a pleasant vocal melody hampered only by the fact that Hill can’t sing. Well, I’m exaggerating there, but his voice is weak and somewhat unattractive. Still, you’ll be lulled into a relaxed mood by the music before Hill quite ridiculously cuts in with some Jimi Hendrix heroics that are totally out of place. The song continues in this schizophrenic mood and it’s difficult to know what to make of it. Walking Down Their Outlook is in a similar style although this time it’s a little more coherent at least.

The closing track, Nowhere, is another excellent track with the strongest melody on the album, even if that comes after some bizarre instrumental anarchy. Ultimately, Sea Shanties is a frustrating album because it is jam-packed full of great ideas that are not developed or lost in the noise. All it needed was a good producer to keep the band in line. Instead, the band used Denny Gerrard. Denny who, I hear you say?  Well, Gerrard had had a minor hit in 1967 with Warm Sounds and in 1969 needed a backing band for his solo album. High Tide did the job for him and in exchange he produced their debut album. Whether Gerrard was incompetent or just disinterested and let the guys do what they wanted we’ll never know. Sadly, the lasting impression of Sea Shanties is one of brilliant music slightly ruined by amateurish execution.

Cover of the sophomore album

High Tide may have learnt the lesson from the experience with Gerrard, and they self-produced their second self-titled album. High Tide emerged in July 1970, just 9 months after Sea Shanties, and is definitely a better produced album and more mature musically. There is a significant difference in the sound because the heavy and sometimes overwhelming riffing of Hill had all but disappeared. There are still riffs, but the balance of the mix is much better, bringing out both the vocals when present and above all House’s keyboard and violin work. This means that opener Blankman Cries Again (which seems to borrow the excellent melody from Nowhere, the last track on Sea Shanties), comes across more as a prog rock piece than a heavy psychedelic one. Structurally, it is clean and coherent too – a far cry from the debut album’s chaos. Even Hill’s voice seems to have improved, although his penchant for weird lyrics hasn’t abandoned him as he delves into Jon Anderson territory with lines like ‘Slowly we walked to the sound of the sunlight…when came the sting of my tasteless game’.

The Joke is another well-constructed song with the main theme initially just one amongst many ideas toyed with in the instrumental prelude. The short vocal section seems lugubrious but twice bursts into a very cheerful ‘60s pop sounding chorus. There’s an excellent (and well restrained) solo from Hill and the main theme is beautifully recapitulated on violin with support from acoustic guitar.

Blankman Cries Again and The Joke formed side one of the original vinyl while side two consisted of the centrepiece of the album, the fifteen-minute curiously-titled Saneonymous. It has an instrumental opening with both Hill and House soloing at the same time over mildly tribal drumming from Hadden. This eventually gives way to a quite beautiful section which begins with acoustic guitars and keys and then a gorgeous melody accompanied by interweaving guitar and violin. It’s epic and uplifting and strikingly similar in mood to Camel’s The White Rider (which would come out four years later….). The music switches back (a little too) abruptly to the instrumental opening but luckily that is a brief interlude prior to the gorgeous melody returning in even more compelling style and a guitar flourish to conclude the piece. That sophomore album, and especially the epic Saneonymous, should have guaranteed High Tide prog rock immortality, but sadly the album was a failure in terms of sales and the group folded.

Concluding the second CD is a version of The Great Universal Protection Racket from the High Tide session. There is an alternate version on the third CD recorded as part of the Sea Shanties session. In both cases, it was decided to exclude the song from the final release. I’d say that this was a wise choice since both versions suffer from being very long and very fragmented, probably reflecting their origin as a live jam. They are pleasant enough but don’t merit a duration of 11:24 and 15:47 respectively. The third CD is completed by early or demo versions of several tracks (none of which are essential listening), and more interestingly a track called Time Gauges which was recorded in the Sea Shanties session but not included on that album. Time Gauges is the most overtly jazz-influenced song they put to tape. It’s almost a jazz improvisation but there’s also a lovely violin theme that stands out too. It might have been a better fit than Pushed, But Not Forgotten or Walking Down Their Outlook on the debut album. There’s also one track, Ice Age, put down after the release of High Tide.  It’s a short and dreamy piece, and is the only hint we have of what a third High Tide album might have sounded like. 

The impressive inner-gatefold artwork for Sea Shanties

I’ve not heard the original vinyl albums so cannot comment on the remastering, but it certainly sounds like a remarkably good job on material that’s over 50 years old. Esoteric have also done one of their spectacular jobs on the packaging. As well as a fold-out poster of the first album cover, each CD is in its own gatefold sleeve with the original artwork reproduced and supplemented by photos. Add the usual detailed booklet and it’s a wonderful package to own and one that should be in the collection of any serious prog fan.