June 17, 2021

There have been quite a few bands over the years who have been the subject of heated debate as to whether they should have changed their name following a particularly abrupt change in style and/or personnel. Marillion being one obvious example, but the likes of Black Sabbath, Genesis and Yes have all at one time or another had the ‘rename’ finger pointed at them. Rare Bird are a definite case in point, as even the band members (before and after the ‘watershed’, as it were) have admitted the stylistic shift. Essentially, they began as a prog band with no guitar, yet two keyboards accompanying the bass and drums – a little like Greenslade, only one of the keyboards was electric piano and the other organ. After their second album, which included a 20-minute epic, said organist (Graham Field) departed, with drummer Mark Ashton shortly after, and the band regrouped as a five-piece, now featuring just the one keyboard player, but two guitarists, as bassist Steve Gould switched to rhythm guitar alongside newly recruited lead player Ced Curtis. At the same time the sound changed dramatically, with their classically-influenced prog being replaced by a strong funk-rock feel, with the prog, if not gone, then greatly toned down. Many prog fans disown the later albums – a view I entirely disagree with, as we will come to – but I can see the logic for a change of name. Perhaps not a complete change, but an amendment, such as when Jefferson replaced the Airplane with a Starship, or Mott dropped The Hoople after Ian Hunter left. Anyhow, it’s a long time ago now, so let’s have a look at the complete recorded output, as contained in this rather nice six-CD box…

The first, self-titled album, from 1969, can best be described as ‘formative’. Containing their hit single Sympathy, which they never managed to capitalise on, it is a mixture of the ‘proto-prog’ around at the time along with some nice psychedelic-tinged rock/pop material. The single is a good song, though not entirely representative of the band, but the truly exceptional track here is the opener, Iceberg. The longest on the album, it’s the one example of pure prog-rock, very much in the style of The Nice, who were still a big deal back then. The album is all entertaining stuff, for sure, but it was the following year’s second release, As Your Mind Flies By, which realised the band’s vision. The first half of the album contains four prog cuts, variously influenced by blues and classical music, and all four are very good, to varying degrees, but the album’s reputation among the prog rock ‘cognoscenti’ rests with the second side of the original vinyl, the 20-minute, four-part Flight, which is a superbly constructed elongated piece, even though the lyrics to the different parts seem bafflingly mismatched! There is even a little bit of Ravel’s Bolero toward the end, just in case the ‘serious’ tone needed emphasising. It’s a fine album, and augmented here by an unreleased 1971 take on a tremendous song entitled Redman, which would finally turn up three albums down the line.

This juncture, however, was where Field and Ashton got off the bus and things shifted. 1972 saw the first album from the reshuffled line-up, entitled Epic Forest. The title was reassuring for the old-school, and the title track was an appropriately ‘epic’ ten-minute piece which kept that flame burning in a slightly altered form. Elsewhere it was very different though, as not only had the guitar entered the frame, but had become arguably the dominant instrument, with Steve Gould’s excellently choppy, funky rhythm parts calling to mind the Doobie Brothers, which is no bad thing I may add. Indeed, the best tracks here, such as the opening Baby Listen and Turning The Lights Out found the band approaching their music in a style reminiscent of Man, whereby the song’s framework would be established before excellent ensemble playing was allowed to stretch out in the middle. It’s a very different album to its predecessor, but to these ears it’s just as good in its own way. It was also accompanied on early pressings by a 33rpm EP, which contained the rather splendid 10-minute You’re Lost, which emphasised strongly that the band’s prog rock ability was anything but lost. The three tracks from that EP are included here, which is a fine addition.

The next effort, 1972’s Somebody’s Watching was a mixed bag of highs and lows, with ex-Van Der Graaf Generator man Nic Potter joining on bass. There were a few examples of that ‘jamming’ element which had come in on Epic Forest, but also a few examples of slightly weak songwriting were creeping in as well. All is rescued by the closing track, however, with Dollars/For A Few Dollars More being a lengthy instrumental vamp based around Ennio Morricone’s theme from the Spaghetti Western For A Few Dollars More (well, it starts and ends with it in any case!) John Wetton was drafted in to play bass on this, for reasons no longer remembered, and it’s a marvellous ending to the record. The band’s final album, down to a quartet, was 1974’s Born Again, and while they emphatically weren’t, the album is far better than it is sometimes dismissed as being. True, it does have a few unremarkable funk/soul excursions among its first few tracks, but the second half of the album is excellent. Redman finally makes a re-recorded appearance on an album, and it’s just as good as the earlier version, being a beautiful and emotional ode to the plight of the Native Americans, as seen through one young man’s eyes. It may not be ‘correct’ to use the term ‘Redman’ now, but I really couldn’t care less about that. The simple fact is that, if more people showed a fraction of the empathy and compassion this song delivers, the world would be a better place. Two more ballads following this, the expansive Peace Of Mind and the rather nice Harlem continue the home runs, while the final track Last Tango In Beulah stretches out over seven minutes or so, and features an electric piano arrangement which pre-empts the sound which Supertramp would make their own over the next few years (they had just recorded their landmark Crime Of The Century, the first real appearance of that signature sound). It isn’t the best Rare Bird album, but it’s still a good one.

As a final bonus, we get a sixth disc containing the band recorded live in 1974, supporting Barclay James Harvest, at a show which was used for the BJH Live album, which is why Rare Bird were also recorded. Being a late-period show, it only includes tracks from the final two albums, which is a shame in a way, but good in another, as the band show themselves to be a superb live unit. That Doobie Brothers comparison really comes into play on massively improved renditions of Somebody’s Watching, Hard Times and Live For Each Other. To keep the progheads happy, the set ends with Last Tango In Beulah and a closing rendition of Dollars. In some ways, it’s actually the best album here, a real lost gem.

Rare Bird may never have hit the big time, and indeed they did contrive to shoot themselves in the foot a little in that regard, but they are a significant and important name to be remembered. For one thing, they were actually the first band to be signed by Charisma Records, and they were also directly responsible for Genesis getting signed to the label, after sharing a bill with them. All of those facts and more are contained in the 40-page booklet accompanying the albums, which themselves come, when relevant, in nice gatefold reproductions of the original sleeves. And the bonus tracks sweep up all of the singles and unreleased tracks, so there is some even Rarer Bird as well. Hey – maybe that’s what they could have changed their name to! Dammit, 50 years too late…