if you take almost any one of the large number of highly talented female blues-rock vocalists around today in the UK, you can hear Maggie Bell as a big inspiration. She was the template for UK ballsy, bluesy ladies in rock, and should not be underrated.
Stone The Crows, hailing from Glasgow in the early ’70s, are one of those bands who, while always being on the radar during their four-album existence, nevertheless didn’t quite manage the elusive promotion to the top division of the rock world of the time – and in the years since have faded rather unfairly into semi-obscurity. The same is true of their erstwhile singer and frontwoman Maggie Bell, and that is nothing short of a travesty as she was without a doubt one of the finest blues-rock female vocalists these islands have ever produced. Such is the lottery of rock and roll history, however, as it often seems that bands who achieved little are remembered far beyond their merits, as one-hit wonders, perhaps, or even as a ‘cult’ band around whom a dubious legend has built up. Stone The Crows were none of those things. They didn’t have a big hit, singular or otherwise, but they did produce four excellent albums which, believe it or not, sold pretty respectably back in the day. This set of reissues, covering all of the band’s album output as well as the two solo albums released by Maggie Bell after the band split, will hopefully set the record straight a little in that regard.
Stone The Crows came together originally in 1969, with some significant names in their line-up. Bassist and co-vocalist with Bell on the first two albums, James Dewar, went on to great acclaim as the extremely impressive voice of Robin Trower’s classic trio, while gifted guitarist Les Harvey was the younger brother of the Sensational Alex. Drummer Colin Allen would go on to join Focus, and appeared on the classic Hamburger Concerto album. That was all in the future, however, as it was a young and lean group of Scottish musicians who recorded the first, self-titled Stone The Crows album in 1970. Despite the band’s reputation, and subsequent restrictive labelling, as a blues-rock act, that first album is surprisingly varied, and a very impressive debut. The second side of the vinyl was entirely given over to the seventeen and a half minute epic I Saw America, and it’s a remarkable piece, very much dominating the album. Taking elements of folk, blues, heavy rock and a huge dose of the relatively new progressive rock which was beginning to flower, it’s really ahead of its time. This was two years before Yes would do a side-long prog epic, and a year before ELP or Pink Floyd. It meanders a little in one or two places, but it’s a fine piece without doubt. The first side contains four shorter tracks, two blues workouts, one percussive-led rock piece in the vein of Deep Purple’s Chasing Shadows, and a radically rearranged interpretation of the Beatles song Fool On The Hill, full of impressive dynamics and a refreshing new take on a familiar piece.
The second album, Ode To John Law, appeared later the same year, and is if anything stronger than the debut. There is no side-long epic this time out, but that is replaced by a greater focus on the band’s direction – still taking in all of the same elements of rock, blues, soul and a good-sized smattering of prog, but all harnessed by a band who knew exactly where they were going. From the album opener, the multi-faceted rock/blues/prog Sad Mary, through to the soulful closer Danger Zone. this is strong stuff all the way. Friend is a cracking prog-tinged rock ballad, Love 74 is a soul-influenced song enhanced by the band stretching out to experiment, while the hard rocking Mad Dogs & Englishmen is inspired by the time the band had travelling the US with Joe Cocker on the infamous tour of the same name – and on the excellent Thing Are Getting Better, Rush fans may be surprised to hear the chorus melody of Bastille Day, five years before that song was released! The title track is described by Maggie Bell in the booklet as being about police brutality in Glasgow, ‘John Law’ being a colloquial nickname for the police, but Colin Allen, who wrote the song with Harvey, insists that it was written about the shootings at Kent State University which had just occurred (also the inspiration behind Neil Young’s song Ohio). Whatever the truth, it is essentially two facets of the same issue, and the strength of the song remains. To my mind this was the band’s best album, though the first and third are certainly close.
After Ode To John Law, Dewar and McGinn left the band, being replaced by Steve Thompson on bass and Ronnie Leahy on keyboards – the latter of which would go on later to do time with those other great Scottish rockers Nazareth, as well as appearing on a couple of albums by Jon Anderson. He also brought in a real songwriting gift, which was a bonus. The album they produced, Teenage Licks, went on to be the band’s most popular album, and it is certainly an excellent record, if just a slight step down from its predecessor. The swaggering story-telling blues-rock of Big Jim Salter provides a fine opener, while Faces and I May Be Right I May Be Wrong could have been hits in the hands of, well, The Faces. Maggie Bell handles all of the vocals now, and her voice is so good that this may be a move for the better, with no disrespect to Dewar at all – a voice like Maggie Bell’s doesn’t come around every day, that’s for sure. There is one McGinn song left over from his time in the band, the proggy and extremely good One Five Eight, while the closing Seven Lakes has some beautiful piano work from Leahy, with a lovely laid-back feel to end the record. The best track here, however, is a rearranged version of Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright – here shortened to simply Don’t Think Twice – which is slowed down and turned into an emotion-packed showcase for Bell, who gives an astonishing performance, teasing nuances and depths from the song which are untapped in the original. Many compared Bell’s voice to that of Janis Joplin, and while there are certainly obvious similarities, they only go so far. While Joplin’s genius lay in her brash, American way of attacking a song and gaining ultimate power and emotion from it, Maggie is decidedly more British – or Scottish to be precise – in her own rough, whisky-soaked drawl, which sounds as if it comes from more nights on the rainy, dark streets of Glasgow than the sunnier climes across the pond. Two astonishingly gifted singers, that much is certain.
Following that album, however, the tragedy which was to define the band struck, when Les Harvey was electrocuted on stage before a show in Swansea, and killed immediately. The band were utterly distraught, losing not only their friend and founder but also a real guitar talent worthy of far more note than his reputation would have it. They were two thirds of the way through making the next album, so they elected to continue, bringing in Jimmy McCullough (later with Wings) to complete the album and join the band for live work. The resulting record, with the odd title of Ontinuous Performance, came out in 1972 to a generally good reception and strong sales, and comsidering its circumstances remains a very strong listen. The title, incidentally, comes simply from the band seeing a cinema sign which should have read ‘Continuous Performance’, but the C had fallen off. As Maggie Bell says in the booklet, ‘I don’t know what we were smoking but it seemed like a good idea at the time!’ The album is a fine memorial to Harvey, who shines on the strutting opener On The Highway, the outstanding One More Chance and the lascivious blues cover Penicillin Blues. Peter Green was even touted as a replacement for Harvey, but he backed out and left the band in the lurch, with the unlikely figure of Steve Howe stepping in to cover a live show. The track Good Time Girl contains some pointed jibes at Green from a distinctly unimpressed Bell (her comments in the notes are classic), with this being one of the two tracks featuring McCullough. The other is the album highlight, the moving Sunset Cowboy, a tribute to Harvey, which closes the album without a dry eye in the house, to continue (or ‘ontinue) the cinema theme. Only Niagara, an overlong blues excursion with some limited tilts at prog highlights, fails to engage as it overstays its welcome. It is still a fine end to the career of this underrated band, as they finally called it a day a year later, with the magic sadly having departed.
The good news, however, is that Maggie Bell embarked on a solo career, which disappointingly only resulted in two albums, but they are both included in this reissue campaign. The first of these, 1974’s Queen Of The Night, is a mixed bag of clear highlights and some less strong material. All of the material is drawn from outside writing sources, some well known but most far less so, and the big winners are the tracks which pack the most emotional heft, for that voice to really go to town on. A Woman Left Lonely, the brilliant As The Years Go Passing By, the achingly nostalgic We Had It All and the wistful closer Trade Winds are as good as any blues-rock from the time that you could care to name, but her covers of John Cale’s After Midnight and Ringo Starr’s Oh My My don’t add too much. The album sold quite well, however, and the following year’s Suicide Sal (on Led Zeppelin’s newly established Swan Song label) is to these ears a much stronger album in terms of consistency. Maggie co-writes the title track, based on her own grandmother, and it’s a real high point. The album opens with a bravely funked-up rearrangement of Free’s classic Wishing Well, and while it really shouldn’t work, somehow it does, amazingly well, shining a different light on the song. Another Free song Hold On is another choice pick, as are Leo Sayer’s In My Life and the album closer, a version of the Pretty Things album track It’s Been So Long. There is one real miss on the album, in the shape of the clumsily-reworded Beatles cover I Saw Him Standing There, which is rather disposable, but the rest of the record shines. Jimmy Page even contributes a couple of guitar solos, for Zeppelin fans!
It’s a real shame that Maggie did not continue her solo recording career, as her voice was, and is, too good not to be heard. She still performs today, but if only she had got her hands on something akin to Pearl’s A Singer, she could easily have made the same leap to household name that fellow ’70s rocker Elkie Brooks did. Certainly, if you take almost any one of the large number of highly talented female blues-rock vocalists around today in the UK, you can hear Maggie Bell as a big inspiration. She was the template for UK ballsy, bluesy ladies in rock, and should not be underrated. All of the albums are packaged really nicely in gatefold digipak sleeves, with the original artwork well displayed and CD and informative booklet (with a lot of input from Maggie) nestled inside. Any of these albums are well worth a listen, but my advice would be to start off with Ode To John Law, Suicide Sal and Teenage Licks, and see what you think. If you like them, you’ll want the lot!