December 19, 2019

Then things got strange. They proposed a second album, to be called Day Of The Soup, recorded it and promptly abandoned it…

I don’t know quite where Cherry Red keep exhuming some of these names from, but I have to say that almost every time they do so I’m glad about it. Most of the semi-obscure ‘70s stuff they dig up tends to appear on Esoteric (which is almost a trademark of quality in itself), but this one is so off the wall that it appears here on the Grapefruit imprint, indicating something seriously, well ‘esoteric’, ironically. I’d heard of Mighty Baby, but will cheerfully admit that beyond that they had been a closed book to me. I have the impression that those few souls who are avid aficionados of their material are the sort of people who may well spend their time in a cave or on top of a high pole, emerging only to attend strange and wonderful travelling Record Fairs. Now, however, we can join them by immersing ourselves in six CDs of every single note the band committed to tape. So lock the doors, and let’s get to it!

First off, a little history, because context is, if not everything, then certainly an important part of what makes these guys so interesting. Around 1966, they were a mod band called The Action, selling lots of records and pulling in the crowds with their high energy covers of mostly American soul records of the day, and even working with George Martin. However, things started changing when they saw acts like Hendrix and Cream, and a couple of member changes brought in a host of occult and philosophical literary influences, and slowly things started morphing into a very different Action. When it began to become clear that their gigs were drying up as a result of audiences walking out and promoters vowing never to book them again, a change of name was the obvious route. It was even more obvious when a proposed new Action album was deemed impossible to release by every record company they approached. Thus the sharp-suited Action became the hairy, psychedelic stoned ne’er do wells Mighty Baby.

In 1969, they recorded their debut album, which occupies the first disc here, along with an acetate version of the originally planned album before it was reworked for release. To best describe the material, it is useful to conjure up that peculiarly late-60s / early ‘70s sound most often labelled ‘proto prog’ or ‘proto metal’. Both descriptions had one thing in common, that being a guitar sound so thick and intense it could be put on bread and sold as a sandwich, but whereas ‘proto metal’ generally featured that guitar spray-painted all over bludgeoning riffs on songs between five and ten minutes long, ‘proto prog’ would tend to replace the riffs with more rambling passages in between banks of Hammond organ and lasting between ten and fifteen minutes. You know the sound, you’re hearing it in your head right now. Mighty Baby occupied a strange no man’s land in between the two, neither as out-there as proto-prog nor as heavy as proto-metal.

The first album is perhaps the best distillation of their style. Featuring eight tracks, generally nudging around the six minute mark, there is almost an early ‘jam band’ feel as they stretch out the material, with the likes of Egyptian Tomb and the muscular Trials Of A City particularly strong. The early version of the album is fascinating, featuring two abandoned yet excellent tracks and an even rawer sound. Not that the finished article was exactly Mutt Lange producing Def Leppard of course, but some of the early takes really do sound like the result of a gang of dissolute hippies, full of vim and vigour and many, many drugs, simply plugging in and playing. Which, essentially, they were.

Then things got strange. They proposed a second album, to be called Day Of The Soup, recorded it and promptly abandoned it as four of the five members disappeared to Morocco and converted to Islam, changing their names, referring to themselves as Dervishes and immersing themselves in Sufi philosophy. Well, we’ve all done it. The recordings for Day Of The Soup can be found on Disc Four here, and are utterly barking mad. The album, as it would have been, contains five tracks. An accessible, short song entitled Winter Passes which is immediately followed by a forty-minute free-form jam split arbitrarily into four and entitled Now You Don’t (Parts 1 To 4). Quite. And in case that isn’t enough, there is a further bonus fifteen minute free-form jam entitled – go on, you can guess – Now You See It. No-one did as it hid from public view until now, brave listeners. In truth, it’s quite hypnotic in its way and, after forty minutes of a dull late-night car journey, it comes oddly into focus. It’s not for the faint hearted though.

Disc Two contains the eventual actual follow-up, A Jug Of Love together with several variable quality bonus tracks from around the time of the debut. It sees the band retreading the same sort of furrow, but stretching out a little more as the songs start winding onward to around the nine or ten minute mark. Only six tracks make up this one, with the high point being the acoustic-based Virgin Spring, which features what can only be described as a lengthy ‘acoustic guitar wig-out’ which approaches the ‘unplugged’ genre in a way MTV never went near. It’s quite brilliant, and a bonus track featuring an electrified version of the piece doesn’t work half as well. The album is essential within the world of Mighty Baby, for sure. Disc Three, however, which contains rehearsals for the album, and veers from one-minute song sketches to almost fully formed workouts, is less so.

At that point, after just two years, Mighty Baby crumbled amid personal tensions which, as the massively detailed twelve thousand word booklet makes clear, weren’t helped by the frustrations of the one non-religious member as his four more devotional bandmates would take turns leaving rehearsals and, on one occasion, a festival performance, to take their prayer mats and attend to their scheduled devotions. Things came to a head when they were doing gigs during Ramadan and the fasting musicians would have to quickly descend on a refreshment truck before going on to play or else they would risk being too weak to get through the shows. All sides decided the two lifestyles were a collision course, and called it a day. Few people noticed. One of the bad ended up in Chilli Willie And The Red Hot Peppers. Another (the still-stoned, secular one) actually ended up in Ace and enjoyed a massive hit with How Long. The other three headed out even further into strange musical places as The Habibiyya.

We are not done, however, as there are two final discs of live performances, one terribly recorded from a gig in Malvern and one much better in sound quality from Glastonbury in 1971, when things overran so badly they had to play in a nearby field until 5am! It’s all a long way from Taylor Swift and Shirley Bassey at what passes for the Glastonbury experience today, one can’t help but think.  These are variable in quality, as the band themselves admit – their live shows varied wildly in terms of content and quality. There are however two versions of their improvisational showcase, John Coltrane’s piece India. The Malvern version contains a drum solo and lasts 22 minutes. The Glastonbury take is different however – this one clocks in at a triumphant 36 minutes and 43 seconds, and that’s without a drum solo. It is also retitled A Blanket In My Muesli, partly owing to a comment made by a person recording proceedings, and partly because by this time all pretence of sounding anything remotely like the Coltrane original had been abandoned.

All in all, this isn’t a release recommended to an unadventurous music fan of very conventional tastes. For those with a curious mind and ears to hear, however, it is quite, quite fascinating. They really don’t make them like this any more