You could practically take Growers Of Mushroom as a sample and make a proto-metal Jurassic Park a reality, where earnest young men with long hair and full beards prowl the enclosures wearing unfeasibly wide flared jeans and saying ‘Far Out’ quite a lot. It’s the musical equivalent of The Land That Time Forgot, and I know I’m far from the only one to find that absolutely irresistible!
Now, I’m sure we could all name a band or two from the early to mid-1970s which couldn’t get arrested at the time but have gone on to be a cult favourite. I’m not sure there would be many better examples of this phenomenon than Leaf Hound, however, whose sole album, Growers Of Mushroom, was released in 1971 with so little fanfare that it would be more accurate to say that it escaped from Decca’s pressing plant while the night watchman was asleep. Not only was the promotional budget roughly the cost of a cheese sandwich, but it had already been delayed by a year, by which time the band had already given it up as a bad job and split up. Unsurprisingly, it sank without trace like a paving slab dropped into the Atlantic. Nobody cared about it whatsoever until over 30 years later when Record Collector magazine suddenly ran a piece on it. Fast forward to 2021, and a copy of the album changed hands for £11,000. Yes, that’s ELEVEN THOUSAND pounds. In 1971 you’d have been hard pushed to find eleven people willing to spend a pound on it.
Of course, this in itself is merely a matter of supply and demand – nobody is going to offer you thousands for your copy of Dark Side Of The Moon, Led Zeppelin IV or Bat Out Of Hell. Even so, people don’t start throwing around half the cost of a new car for a 50-year-old circle of black vinyl if there isn’t something special about it, and that holds true here, because Growers Of Mushroom still holds up as a fine record. Not quite so good that I’d want to shout ‘take my money!’ and throw eleven grand at someone, of course, but certainly well worth picking up here to see what the fuss was all about – or wasn’t, in 1971, of course. Let me first of all set your expectations. This is a heavy record. It is a very heavy record. It sounds much like Blue Cheer taking a whole pile of downers, hearing the first Zeppelin album, and deciding that they’d had an epiphany.
In actual fact, Leaf Hound arose from a band called Black Cat Bones, which featured Pete French on vocals and his cousin Mick Halls on guitar. Black Cat Bones are noteworthy for having featured Paul Kossoff and Simon Kirke before they joined up with Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser to form Free. The pair had joined the band after Kossoff and Kirke had decamped, in the wake of a decision which in hindsight makes the decision to turn down the Beatles look like a reasonable day at the office. According to Mick Halls in the astonishing booklet story included here, Kossoff and Kirke wanted Paul Rodgers, but the Black Cat bass player Stuart Brooks, in a moment of visionary genius, decided he didn’t want Rodgers as the singer, so they went elsewhere. Let’s just stop for a round of applause for a moment for that decision. Anyhow, undaunted, Black Cat Bones began drifting away from blues and more into decidedly heavier, self-written pastures, and changed their name to the suggestively ‘herbal’ Leaf Hound (though more on that shortly).
Following on in the spirit of horrendous decisions, Leaf Hound were signed to Decca by – according to French – none other than Dick Rowe, the man still riding the wave of acclaim for refusing the Beatles eight years earlier! Perhaps he was attracted by these like-minded souls happily washing their hands of Kossoff and Rodgers, who knows? Anyhow, the band went into the studio in 1970 to record their debut album. Then left eleven hours later at 10pm having finished it. Many albums were recorded quickly in those days, but even so, to have a lie-in, get to the studio at 11am, and still finish the entire album in time for last orders at the pub that evening was pretty remarkable.
Another thing about Growers Of Mushroom which only adds to its charm, is that it could only have been recorded in 1970 or 1971. It is locked into that time frame like a fly trapped in amber and scientifically dated. You could practically take this album as a sample and make a proto-metal Jurassic Park a reality, where earnest young men with long hair and full beards prowl the enclosures wearing unfeasibly wide flared jeans and saying ‘Far Out’ quite a lot. It’s the musical equivalent of The Land That Time Forgot, and I know I’m far from the only one to find that absolutely irresistible. You could throw a dart at any track on this album and hit something good, but to these ears nowhere is the whole Leaf Hound phenomenon demonstrated better than on the eight minute Work My Body (the only track to make it to over four and a half minutes as it happens). Like nowhere else on the album, the band seemingly decide to stretch out and jam on an instrumental section, which takes up half of the track in magnificent fashion. There is little subtlety on offer here, they simply whack the amps up full and go for it, and it’s marvellous stuff. At about the 5:30 mark, they cease the instrumental portion, and go back into the song part. The fact that it appears to be a different song entirely doesn’t really matter. In fact, it would have been disappointing if it were as conventional as reprising the beginning. When you only have eleven hours, who needs an attention span anyway?
The thing most apparent about the band, from the name to the album title, and taking in the heavy and doomy abandon of the playing, is that they were in effect one of the original ‘stoner rock’ bands. However, according to Pete French, they never really went for anything other than a pint of lager for recreation, and the Leaf Hound of the name actually comes from a horror story by Ray Bradbury called The Emissary, as a deceased dog returns from the grave covered in soil and leaves. French had encountered the story in an anthology compiled by Herbert Van Thal, in whose pages he also found the inspiration for many of the song titles. This does seem hard to believe when faced with the title track, with its mushroom references and general air of being so stoned that it is possibly an offence in the latest Highway Code to drive while listening to it, but such is apparently the case. Those looking for deep meaning in the lyrics might be dissuaded by the story (again recounted in the booklet) that two of the tracks, With A Minute To Go (named as it was the last song recorded) and the oddly named Sawdust Caesar, were in fact mis-labelled as each other and rather than correcting the error, simply left with their titles swapped. There is, honestly, no way to tell from the lyrics of the respective songs! There are two bonus tracks recorded around the same time included here as well. They are both excellent and sound very similar in tone to the main album, unsurprisingly.
Leaf Hound soldiered on for a while, but tiring of continuing to tour with nothing to promote while awaiting the album release, they called it a day, somewhat disillusioned. Whereupon, later in 1971, the album, as we have seen, dribbled out onto the street and into whatever shops it could find a home in. And the rest, as they say, is history. Although not entirely as Pete French, after a period with Atomic Rooster on the In Hearing Of album, and then with Cactus along with Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, spent a long time kicking his heels in various bands after a career-damaging contract tie-in when the other two Cactus guys decamped to join Jeff Beck in Beck, Bogert And Appice. With the belated millennial interest in Growers Of Mushroom, he put together a new version of Leaf Hound, who went on to record a new album entitled Unleashed, in 2007.
Now, when this sort of thing happens, alarm bells always begin to go off, as it is easy for the newly-minted incarnation to fall into any number of traps, two of which can be either trying to retread the original too closely or, conversely, to sound far too modern and polished and lose all of the spirit. Amazingly, none of that happens here, as the album is an excellent one, and on purely musical merits, perhaps better than its cult forerunner. Admittedly, the opening straight rock of One Hundred And Five Degrees does raise brief fears that the magic has been polished off the uncut gem, but this is soon dispelled. Barricades and The Man With The Moon In Him are top-grade grinding, ballbusting rockers, while the more reflective Nickels And Dimes is a really nice change of pace. Too Many Rock ‘n ‘Roll Times is a proper rock anthem in waiting, while the six-minute, more proggy feel of the superb Deception would have made a perfect album closer.
Or, it would if the main event wasn’t still to come. Dedicated to the memory of French’s old Atomic Rooster bandmate Vincent Crane, the band put in a version of Breakthrough, the opening track from the In Hearing Of album, and originally sung by French of course. It lasts for seven and a half minutes and, as good as the original is, this one gives it a kicking round the block and no mistake. The band eagerly pick the song up, shake it by the scruff of the neck, and just go for broke, upping the ‘heavy’ and the ‘rock’ and doubling the excitement. It’s not only a fine tribute to Crane, but also a great close to the album.
If you, like me, are attracted to this one on the strength of the reputation of Growers Of Mushroom, then enter without fear, you’ll love it for sure. But be prepared to stick around for Unleashed, which will ensure you get your rocks well and truly off. Leaf Hound – a 52-year overnight success story? Believe it. This is the Leaf Hound’s dangly bits and no mistake. Just make up your own mind about how stoned you reckon they truly were!