December 11, 2021

So, ‘what’s in a name?’ – as the saying has it. Well, in the case of this new album, the first for around a decade to be released under the Medicine Head banner, the answer is ‘quite a lot, in a way’. Because this is an album which has to be approached in two ways: as an album, but also as a Medicine Head album – and those are somewhat different perspectives, both in relation to the appropriateness or otherwise of the Medicine Head name, but also the logic behind it. Because I must make it clear that this is an album which I thoroughly enjoyed, while simultaneously scratching my head somewhat…

Let’s go back to the beginning though, for the benefit of those either too young or not so obsessed with the minutiae of early 1970s rock music to be up to speed with the debate, as it were. When Medicine Head first appeared, at the dawn of the ’70s (literally, as they were on the Dawn label, as it happens), they were a very different musical proposition to the hard rock and proto-prog bands who were springing up with the speed and proliferation of weeds after some Spring rainfall. Indeed, not even a band as such, Medicine Head consisted of John Fiddler and Peter Hope-Evans, who played everything themselves, in a largely acoustic and utterly home-made fashion, creating a sort of country-folk-blues-rock which was so rustic that it made Mungo Jerry sound like The Royal Philharmonic. So unusual was this irresistibly joyous racket they created that they pretty soon made a name for themselves, being feted by John Peel in particularly enthusiastic fashion, but also notably by John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend. Notably releasing an album called Dark Side Of The Moon in 1972 – a year before THAT one – they even managed to score a top three UK single with their song One And One Is One, and even when they briefly expanded to a full band for the album Thru A Five and another hit called Rising Sun, they still sounded as if they had dropped by and recorded the album in your kitchen while they raided your fridge for beer and vegetables. And they managed somehow to release some extraordinarily good music which, perhaps precisely because of its shunning of modern recording refinements, still sounds timeless today.

Fast Forward to 2021 and this album. John Fiddler has been the sole custodian of the Medicine Head name since Hope-Evans quit back in the ’70s, leaving him the name with his blessing, so there is no issue whatsoever with Fiddler recording this album with some guest musicians (‘guest Heads’) including previous Head alumnus Morgan Fisher and guitarist Dave ‘Bucket’ Colwell, as it is entirely his ‘baby’, so to speak – he ‘is’ Medicine Head in the same way as Ian Anderson is seen as being Jethro Tull and David Coverdale as Whitesnake. No, the disconcerting thing here is the whole style and ethos of the album, as while certainly containing some excellent songs, this is essentially a well-crafted, accomplished commercial blues/rock album with some folky influences in the mix here and there. It’s completely at odds with what Medicine Head represented, and this is where the discussion comes in. Because one wonders how this benefits from the Medicine Head name. Those who don’t remember the original band will not be attracted by the name in any case, while those who were fans will have the potential to be put off by what they may see as an evolution too far. In the same way that a foray into jazz-funk by Tom Araya and Kerry King would not benefit from the Slayer name, nor an Annie Haslam country-and western excursion would be hindered by the Renaissance name, this seems a curious marketing tactic. (I’m exaggerating, of course, but the point does stand).

Nonetheless, as already stated, this is far from a poor album. The lead track Warriors Of Love is a pop-rock-soul concoction which could easily be imagined troubling the charts (Colwell is exceptional on this), while other tracks such as Alcohol And Cheap Perfume, Dancing In The Rain and Forgive And Forget are also full of enormous merit. There is some excellent guitar work scattered throughout the album, with echoes of Carlos Santana in places, and a nice Dylanesque vocal delivery or turn of phrase here and there. There are even isolated glimpses of the old Medicine Head sound, with the heavy harmonica-driven blues of Want Your Love and the slightly ‘past-meets-present’ mash-up of Chinese Whispers. In fact, there isn’t really an entirely duff track here – it’s just hard to see who the target audience really is.

It might have been a wise move to credit this as ‘John Fiddler’s Medicine Head’ or something similar, so that the old guard would recognise the origin of the album, without having so much in the way of preconceived expectations – but then again, given the professional and enjoyable nature of the record, and some rather nice lyrical ideas here and there as well, no-one will be more pleased than me if the album does well. For anyone who has the previous release, 2012’s Fiddlersophical, I would certainly rate this as the superior recording. Comparing it to early ’70s Medicine Head albums is really a very difficult thing to do, and would depend entirely on the sonic preferences of the listener. When I reviewed Fiddlersophical at the time of its release, I expressed a hope that John would release an album under his own name next time, and I would still say the same thing. The past, as they say, is another country…