October 30, 2020

Back in the early-to-mid 1970s, one of the things which started sprouting everywhere like so many virtuosic mushrooms was the ‘supergroup’ – an aggregation of musicians already famous from other bands joining forces, sometimes to great effect (ELP, Bad Company) and sometimes to, well, lesser (West, Bruce And Laing, Blind Faith). This phenomenon was still around as the ’80s rolled around (see Asia), but to a far lesser degree, as the self-appointed Arbiters Of Taste at the NME and other such publications had decreed that such accumulations of talent were to be groaned at rather than applauded, and certainly not given any encouragement. Refugee, coming together rather briefly in 1973-4, were one such band – although the ‘supergroup’ tag in this particular case was more appropriate looking at it retrospectively. The bass, drums, keyboards ‘Nice/ELP model’ followed here had the rhythm section from The Nice (Lee Jackson and Brian Davison) joining forces with keyboard maestro Patrick Moraz. Although Moraz is the clear outstanding talent in this collective, he had nevertheless not yet become a ‘name’ in his own right. By the time he jumped the Refugee ship to join Yes for the Relayer album, all of that changed of course, and Refugee became looked back on forever as a ‘classic’ supergroup.

They only managed one album in their brief existence before Moraz answered ‘Yes’ to Yes, but it is here expanded with two discs of live material from the time. But we get ahead of ourselves: what are the merits of the original studio album? Well, the answer is ‘considerable, albeit flawed’. Clearly indebted to old Nice bandmate Keith Emerson’s work with ELP, the album in fact opens with perhaps its two weakest links (excepting the one-minute Gate Crasher on the old Side Two), which makes it saunter out of the starting gate rather than gallop. Opener Papillon clearly tries to showcase the band’s technical chops, but it lurches from one unrelated section to another far too much, and ends up rather disjointed. Following this, Someday is a better composed track, but this time suffers from a rather weak vocal from Jackson, who was never a lead singer by any stretch of the imagination, and is probably the reason why so much of the album is instrumental. Mixed very low, the vocal distracts from the song. However, from this point things pick up considerably, with the first of two multi-part epics arriving in the shape of Grand Canyon. Stretched out a little over its 17-minute duration, the five-part suite nevertheless contains some absolutely sublime moments.

After the short Gate Crasher opens what was the second side in the old money, we get what, to these ears, are the best two tracks on the album. Ritt Mickley (apparently titled after Moraz told the other two to play more ‘rhythmically’ in his strong Swiss-French accent) treads similar ground to Papillon, but in a much tighter and more effective way, and the closing 18-minute Credo does what Grand Canyon did, only even more bombastically (and, to me, even better). It’s a fine closer which could easily have taken up the entire second side, were this not such a long vinyl album.

The first of the live discs is a BBC Radio broadcast from May 1974, and is well recorded as one would expect, but somewhat brief owing to the BBC broadcast time limits – containing only Ritt Mickley, Someday and the Grand Canyon suite. Disc three, with a more or less full show from a Newcastle gig in June ’74, is much more interesting. Originally from a tape in Brian Davison’s collection, and released in low key fashion back in 2007, the recording is not quite as clinical as the BBC source, but is still of excellent quality and has a good deal more ‘live’ ambience. This time out, we get the same three pieces as the BBC show (though Ritt Mickley, opening, is shortened), with the addition of a very strong – if rather oddly titled – piece called One Left Handed Peter Pan, with lyrics ostensibly about Peter Pan, but also autobiographical about Jackson with a secondary meaning relating to the music business and the illusion it can create. Intended for a follow up album which was never even begun, this one is a real find for collectors. There is also an extended run through the old Nice song Diamond Hard Blue Apples Of The Moon and a go at Dylan’s She Belongs To Me – which was also from the Nice repertoire. After Grand Canyon there is a four minute jam, simply titled here Refugee Jam, showing the band simply enjoying themselves.

In the final analysis, Refugee were simply not enough to hold onto a talent like Moraz. Jackson and Davison are good players, but their history repeated itself here with a keyboard genius with all of the star quality going on to bigger things. In retrospect, they should perhaps have enlisted a guitarist and vocalist, and forged more of an identity away from their Emerson-dominated past, but such speculation is academic. Indeed, Emerson himself is said to have been a big admirer of the Refugee studio album, and there can be little higher recommendation. The album is exclusively remastered by Moraz, along with Jean Ristori, for this release, and so you can be assured that it sounds if anything better than ever sonically. Essential for any collectors of Yes and Nice related material, this is also required listening for any admirer of this particular strain of ’70s prog bombast.

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