April 6, 2023

In the late 1960s / early 1970s, when rock music was still a bubbling morass of various influences, there was a Worcestershire lad named Luther Grosvenor. When formulating a list of rock’s foremost guitarists, it’s possible that his name wouldn’t be on the tip of your tongue, which is unfortunate, considering how pivotal he was in those early days. His first recording band, when still a teenager, was Deep Feeling with Jim Capaldi, who would go on to form Traffic with Steve Winwood. This was rapidly followed by The VIPs featuring keyboard wizard Keith Emerson – they were renamed Art in 1967, when Emerson left to form The Nice. Grosvenor recorded with all these bands, but fame beckoned when Art morphed into the iconic Spooky Tooth, who released four albums before folding in 1970, notably the influential Spooky Two in 1969.

We pause for a moment here, as Spooky Tooth would reform a little later, but without Grosvenor, who would go on to much greater fame and fortune as a member of Mott The Hoople, with front man Ian Hunter. If you’re wondering why Grosvenor’s name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because he used the stage name Ariel Bender during his time with Mott, which Hunter laid down as a condition of Grosvenor joining the band. That of course is another story, but in between his tenures with Spooky Tooth and Moot The Hoople, Grosvenor had time in 1971 to release a single solo album on the Island label, named Under Open Skies. This album has been resurrected, repackaged and re-released by Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint, complete with an excellent and informative 16-page booklet with notes by Steve Pilkington, containing contributions from Grosvenor himself.

The album represents a genuine cross-section of all the melding genres of the time, with Grosvenor playing some songs as solo numbers, some with one or two collaborators, and a few with full band. He doesn’t waste his cache of famous friends either, as the set features guest spots from such luminaries as the aforementioned Jim Capaldi, Trevor Burton of The Move, Trevor Lucas from folk heroes Fotheringay and fellow Spooky Tooth alumnus Mike Kellie. It’s an introspective, intellectual set for the most part, starting with the 6½ minute Ride On, which borders on prog, built around a complicated bass line, which Grosvenor plays himself in addition to guitars and lead vocals. The backline of Mike Kellie on drums and John Hawken on piano is pure jazz alternating with a straight-ahead rock shuffle, giving a slightly cross-cut vibe to the number.

Luther Grosvenor poses, Wakeman-like, in dramatic cape – photo from album centre-spread

Lead single Here Comes The Queen could hardly be more different, a genuine Summer Of Love folk song on heavily strummed acoustic guitars, with an acoustic slide solo at the end. Once again, Grosvenor plays bass and all guitars, with drums being added this time by Mike Giles from King Crimson, no less. The set drifts into driving rock territory with When I Met You, a full-band affair in which bass duties are taken by Trevor Burton, with Kellie on drums and Hawken on piano – Grosvenor allows himself a rare solo on this one, really stretching out with some truly excellent chops. A further notable feature is the playout, which fades in and out a couple of times over a massed vocal chant and hand-claps.

Love The Way is a romantic, acoustic folk ballad in 3-4 time. It’s treated essentially as a solo piece, and although it doesn’t feature a drumkit, lush percussion is provided courtesy of Grosvenor himself, playing various shakers, scrapers and cymbals. This forms a kind of pigeon-pair with the following equally introspective piece, Waiting, also in triplet time. The highlight of the set for most listeners is likely to be the full-on prog of Rocket, with a great riff, constantly morphing soundscape and some tremendous bass and guitar work, again from Grosvenor; in fact he does everything on this number except play the drums, which are provided again by Mike Kellie.

Grosvenor as Ariel Bender with Widowmaker (1976)

The album proper draws to a close after little more than 35 minutes with the title track Under Open Skies, which is the true definition of folk-rock, Grosvenor pounding an acoustic guitar while Burton and Kellie again provide bass and drums respectively. An extended playout features lead guitar, but sunk low in the mix so it adds to the ambience more than being a feature in its own right – in fact, seeing as Grosvenor is primarily a guitarist, he rarely indulges in up-front soloing, preferring instead to contribute his skills to a backing position.

A couple of bonus tracks have generously been provided, which add another 8 minutes. Heavy Day features a proggy, jazzy intro riff played on a saxophone, no less, uncredited unfortunately, and even though the backing piano is sunk way down in the mix, it is still crystal clear; in fact the production on this throwaway B-side to the single of Here Comes The Queen seems to be a step up from the main album, which is odd to say the least. The amusingly offbeat All The People finishes the collection, a real rarity, issued as a non-album single the following year with Waiting as the B-side. It has something of the flavour of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; an off-the-wall arrangement features a tambourine and a pair of cleverly-arranged guitars, playing single, repeated notes from each side of the pan, perfectly timed to be slightly off-beat from each other. With the excellent production on this last track, which also elevates Grosvenor’s voice to a higher level, it becomes another album highlight.

Luther himself is not the worst singer you’ve heard, but he’s a long way from the best in all honesty. It might be argued that it’s never been much of a disadvantage in rock, something which is driven home by the famously atonal singer Ian Hunter in Grosvenor’s most famous outing, as Ariel Bender in Mott The Hoople. The origin of this pseudonym is explained at some length by Grosvenor himself in the booklet, (teaser: What is the connection between Mott The Hoople and blonde bombshell Lynsey de Paul?), which also includes the important note that in between this solo album and Mott, he served a stint as Gerry Rafferty’s replacement in the classic Stealer’s Wheel; he also went on to form the supergroup Widowmaker. In any case, although the record-buying public are unlikely to be lulled into glorious reverie by Grosvenor’s golden tonsils, this rare helping of early ‘70s goodness is an excellent window into the emerging rock world as the Beatles era gave way to the Led Zep years. It will also hopefully raise awareness of a rock giant whose name is a lot less well-known than the music he helped to create.

Under Open Skies – Remastered & Expanded by Luther Grosvenor will be released on 28 April 2023