In terms of ‘great band names to conjure with down the years’, it’s probably a fair bet that Toe Fat isn’t going to get many votes. And that’s only from the people who are aware that they existed, which is a pretty restricted pool to start with. However, this bizarrely named band have their own … I’m going to say it … ‘footnote’ in rock history, being the band which had among its members both Ken Hensley and Lee Kerslake, after they had departed their previous band The Gods and before either of them joined up with Uriah Heep. In actual fact, it is probably only in Heep circles where the Toe Fat name is still kicking around (I know, I’ll stop now), and yet the man behind the founding of the band was Cliff Bennett, latterly of ’60s also-rans Cliff Bennett And The Rebel Rousers. As the ’60s drew to a close, Bennet – presumably realising that any rebel rousing he had been able to achieve wasn’t going to repeat itself any time soon – elected to form another band in a heavier style, more suited to the emerging trends of the day, and he recruited three members of the recently disbanded Gods, in the shape of our two future Heep Heroes, but also John Glascock, later to find fame with Jethro Tull before his untimely death, on bass. A little bit of a ‘future supergroup’, in effect, in which the members were unknown at the time, but would go on to find greater fame later – with the exception of Bennett, whose career trajectory was heading in the other direction.
Teaming up with a couple of brothers as managers who had some fairly heavy connections (according to Bennett in the accompanying booklet), the Toe Fat name was actually him accepting a challenge to think of the most disgusting name possible. Thankfully, the earlier suggestions of Bollocks and Shit Harry were discarded, and Toe Fat was born. Their self-titled debut continued the somewhat creepily distasteful theme with its cover (also used for this collection), showing several people on a beach with the photograph doctored to give them giant toes for heads. This included a small naked couple in the background who fell foul of the censors in some areas, resulting in certain editions replacing them with a sheep. Yes, that’s right, a sheep. On a beach. With giant toe-headed men. Keep in mind, this was 1970. Things were different then, kids…
What of the album contained within this odd package though – was it any good, and does it hold up today? The answer to both questions is a resounding ‘partly, yes’, as it is a flawed yet fascinating first step from a line-up which only lasted for the one album. There are sonic echoes of Heep throughout, but this is unavoidable since Hensley contributed all guitar, all keyboards, and some lead and backing vocals, with Kerslake also weighing in with backing vocals as well as his drums. That means that with the exception of Bennett, everything you hear on this album apart from the bass guitar (and very occasional flute and harmonica) is 100% Uriah Heep. A scan of the writing credits indicates, with the exception of a handful of covers, all of the rest of the material is credited to Bennett alone – but hold on, as this is misleading. It turns out – again, courtesy of the informative booklet – that Hensley annoyed the Management Duo by forming his own publishing company, and as a fall-out from this disagreement he was summarily fired before the album’s release, and his name removed from the writing credits. As it turns out, he co-wrote the material with Bennett, clearly having a big hand in the music side of things, so once again any Heep resemblance is entirely expected.
Hensley’s guitar is in fact more prominent than his keyboard playing on the album, and it is a salutory reminder of just how accomplished a guitarist he was – a fact often overlooked during his time with Heep, when his six-string work tended to be slide or acoustic parts in the main. In fact, it is one of those recordings where the band are stronger than the material, giving it a real leg-up where it falters a little, particularly on the second half of the record. The covers on the album include Nobody, which was recorded by Three Dog Night among others, but most interestingly the song which gives this set its title, Bad Side Of The Moon, which was written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, yet only originally released by Elton on the B-side of the Border Song single. He had apparently been a fan of the Rebel Rousers (and christened by them at gigs as ‘The Milky Bar Kid’), and he was happy for them to record it, and well worth it it proved, as it’s an excellent track, with some delightful acoustic guitar from Hensley evoking The Wizard in places. In fact, the first half of the record is extremely strong, from the heavy riffing opener That’s My Love For You, the following Bad Side Of The Moon, the heavy prog of the aforementioned Nobody (given a great guitar-driven six minute workout) and, perhaps best of all the beautiful The Wherefors And The Whys, featuring some magically sensitive guitar work from Hensley.
Towards the end of the album, one or two weaker compositions come up, which have any lack of memorable melody covered well by the abilities of the band as a collective, and Hensley in particular. There is only one really disastrous misstep, which sees Bennett going back to his ’60s roots with a cover of Just Like Me, recorded by The Coasters originally, and later by the Hollies and the Searchers. With its banal mid-’60s chorus and toe curling nursery rhyme verses, it was a bad song to begin with, and the decision to cover it is a baffling and poor decision. Skip over that one though, and there’s an album well worth discovering hiding beneath those giant toes.
With Hensley and also Kerslake departing, what is often forgotten is that a revamped Toe Fat recorded a second album, the imaginatively titled Two. John Glascock brought in his brother Brian on drums, while guitar duties are handled by Alan Kendall, who would go on to work with the Bee Gees with great success for a number of years. Keyboards this time out are dispensed with. The album arrived housed in another frankly horrendous cover showing a pile of what appears to be rotting food and insect life. Look among the maggots and other unpleasantries, however, and you will notice the return of the thumb-men, this time tiny and climbing around the scenery. It’s a nice touch, but really, it isn’t surprising the album sank like a stone! It is even largely disregarded, certainly in comparison to the debut, by the band themselves, but in actual fact while the Heep factor may have gone, this is still an album with a lot to recommend it.
Opener Stick Heat – once one gets past the bizarre ukelele intro – is an absolute monster, a six minute beast which crushes its way along like a hybrid of Purple Haze and Black Sabbath’s The Wizard. Nothing on the debut was this heavy, that’s for sure. Third track Idol is another riff-driven cracker, and while the seven-minute blues of There’ll Be Changes overstays its welcome by some distance, it does boast an uncredited guitar solo by Peter Green which is as good as you’d hope. There’s an attempt to really tap into the prog vein with the eight minute A New Way which, while struggling to maintain cohesive form, does include some really good ideas. Album closer Midnight Sun is another hard rocking track which features one of Bennett’s best vocal performances, and closes the original album in fine style. Added as a bonus are the two sides of a later single, of which the A-side, Brand New Band (composed by future Gillan keyboard player Colin Towns) is an excellent recording and is full of merit. The other side, Bennett’s Can’t Live Without You, on the other hand, can easily be lived without.
It is probably true that most people will gravitate to this with their attention on the first album through the Heep connection, but it would be foolish to stop there. In its own way, the second album has as much to recommend it, and overall it may just be the stronger album. Cliff Bennett also provides some interesting background and insights in the accompanying booklet, though there is one point upon which he must surely be mixed up. He claims that Hensley called him to offer him the lead vocalist position in Uriah Heep before David Byron joined, which would have been a surprise to Byron, who had been a founder member of pre-Heep incarnation Spice two years before Hensley even arrived! Despite this, it is an interesting and informative read.
Check these both out, and enjoy a largely unheralded slice of early ’70s rock history. Come for the Heep, stay for the Toes. It’s worth it.