July 11, 2024

This collection certainly aims to mine some obscure seams, with a great many of the tracks here which are not culled from albums, actually being the B-sides of singles of which even the A-sides have been forgotten. It’s also chronological, so it flows well, telling a sort of alternative Decca history.

The clue to the connecting theme of this three-disc compilation is in the label credit: in 1966, the Decca label set up the Deram imprint, ostensibly as a home for the new and ‘hip’ sounds which they were struggling to categorise, and therefore this set consists of recordings from one or other of the two labels. In one way, Decca were ahead of the game with this, as other ‘progressive’ imprints such as Harvest (EMI) and Vertigo (Philips) did not appear until some three years later. In another way, however, it was more of an intention than a hard and fast rule, as acts of various degrees of ‘alternativeness’ (from ‘very’ to ‘none’) began to bleed over from Decca to Deram and vice versa in a quite random fashion – in a sense, Deram often simply became home for something which Decca were unsure about. Credit to them for the effort however – having already turned down the Beatles, the Who and the Kinks, Decca were seen as about as new and ‘with-it’ as a set of floral curtains and antimacassar-backed armchairs, and so they were certainly having a go. The name was a little more dull and prosaic that you might imagine, however – if like me you always believed it to be an anagram of ‘Dream’ in a very hippy/dope way, you may be disappointed to learn that Deram was merely a name used for a defunct ceramic hi-fi cartridge which had been trademarked by Decca, and was simply available to use for nothing. Anyhow, this collection certainly aims to mine some obscure seams, with a great many of the tracks here which are not culled from albums, actually being the B-sides of singles of which even the A-sides have been forgotten. It’s also chronological, so it flows well, telling a sort of alternative Decca history.

The first disc kicks off in 1966, running through to 1968, and for the most part focuses squarely on the ‘psych’ element of the set, all psychedelic pop and proto-rock of the type which the likes of Pink Floyd and the Pretty Things would be honing to perfection in the imminent future. One or two big names do appear on this disc – the 1966 Moody Blues track Love & Beauty and the Small Faces’ That Man are eminently forgettable – but much of the fascinating stuff comes from the complete unknowns and a smattering of well known but less omnipresent acts. The two opening tracks are, in fact, both excellent despite being the earliest here: the version of the old chestnut (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone by The Flies hangs on a beautifully insistent fuzzed-up lead guitar hook, and the early single B-side Turn Into Earth by Al Stewart is a surprisingly fresh-sounding version of the Yardbirds track from their 1966 Roger The Engineer album, and to these ears better than the original (it was the flip side to Stewart’s debut single The Elf – remember that one? No, me neither). Other familiar names crop up – there’s an early Denny Laine single, one by Paul And Barry Ryan and the rather dull jump-blues of Train To Nowhere by Savoy Brown, but the real fascination is in uncovering rather splendid nuggets such as Vacuum Cleaner by Tintern Abbey, the hugely entertaining Cheadle Heath’s Delusions by Felius Andromeda and Grounded by pre-Yes outfit The Syn. There are very derivative moments, unsurprisingly, with Treacle Toffee World by The Fire utterly in thrall to the Syd Barrett Pink Floyd, but elsewhere the opposite is true, as Lady Orange Peel by The Attack may sound as it it’s some kind of precursor to Lady Marmalade, but is actually a rather interesting percussive-driven piece, while Here Today Gone Tomorrow by The Plague could have been an early dry run for the later SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things. One of the real oddities here is a simplistic ode to old-time rock and roll called, uninspiringly, Get Out Your Rock And Roll Shoes. The song is very mundane, and unlikely to inspire many to unearth their rock and roll footwear, but where on earth the band name Crocheted Doughnut Ring comes from is anyone’s guess! The disc ends with the early Ten Years After track The Sounds, which though being from 1968, brings things closer to the advent of the ’70s in spirit with its progressive, experimental and guitar freak-out content being hugely entertaining (another B-side I might add – Portable People, remember that? You’re not alone).

Disc Two takes us from late ’68 to 1970, and familiar names from the prog scene are beginning to appear now. Genesis feature with In The Beginning from their formative debut album, but there are also tracks from Egg, East Of Eden and the Keef Hartley Band. Still plenty of real obscurities to discover though, needless to say. Right from the off there is an oddity – have you ever listened to Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell and thought ‘that’s all right, but what it cries out for is a two and a half minute Indian drone intro, followed by a left shift into a folk-rock treatment to take it up to six minutes’? Well, no, neither have I strangely enough. But Davy Graham clearly did in 1968, and has answered that unspoken question for us. In fact, it’s a pretty good version, though it can hardly compare to the original or Neil Diamond’s definitive interpretation – but that ‘Early World Music’ intro is oddly placed to say the least. Lots of good stuff here: I had no idea who Christopher Colt was, but his Virgin Sunrise is a fine track, while King Croesus by whoever World Of Oz may have been is a proto-prog classic which has been scandalously ignored all these years, and exactly what is great about this sort of set. One of the tracks I half-remembered from decades ago, Northern Hemisphere by East Of Eden, is as good as I recalled it, while the tracks by Genesis and The Keef Hartley Band are both good efforts from early in their respective careers (the Genesis track In The Beginning is just that, track one on their first album). The piece selected from Canterbury stalwarts Egg is the decidedly odd Seven Is A Jolly Good Time. Described in the accompanying booklet as ‘A Young Person’s Guide To Time Signatures’, I couldn’t put it better than that. It’s probably the first song I have ever heard wherein the lyrics refer directly to the time signatures they are currently playing in, as it jumps around from standard four time (the time signature of a naive youth, of course), through five, seven and eleven. Guess what the chorus is in. It’s very clever indeed, though whether it translates to good listening is up to the individual ear. It may divide the crowd. There are hits and misses aplenty elsewhere on the disc. ‘Igginbottom is a bizarrely named band who featured a young Allan Holdsworth, and one which has always intrigued me. Having heard the track The Castle from the 1969 ‘Igginbottom’s Wrench album, I am no longer so intrigued – let’s just put it that way. I’m not sure whether there has ever been a more ‘late ’60s’ band name as Tinkerbell’s Fairydust, but their song Twenty Ten (looking ahead through the mists of time to… well, 14 years ago) isn’t half as feebly fey-sounding as the name might suggest. Green Plant by Cherry Smash treats us to the gripping tale of a potted plant (really), while the blues-rock outfit Ashkan, featuring future Fleetwood Mac man Bob Weston, deliver the dull Stop (Wait And Listen) which would be better titled Stop, Don’t Wait, And Don’t Listen. Aardvark give us the rather good Very Nice Of You To Call, while making a clear effort to be first alphabetically in every record collection (if anyone had actually bought their albums, that is). Closing the disc is Garden Song by Bill Fay, a cult figure whose second album, Time Of The Last Persecution is one of the darkest and most unsettling albums you could ever wish to hear – though this selection from his 1970 debut is somewhat lighter fare.

With Disc Three, from ’70-’73, the early formative psychedelic stuff is behind us, as we get to a much more prog-leaning selection, exemplified by the opening eight-minute instrumental Cemetery Junction Parts 1&2 by Room (note, not ‘The Room’, just ‘Room’). It’s excellent, as is the following version of the much-covered Feeling Good by Black Cat Bones (the band who originally included Simon Kirke and Paul Kossoff pre-Free, and later morphed into Leafhound). Once again there are big names on the disc (Caravan give us Hello Hello from their second album, while Steve Hillage’s early band Khan have Stargazers from their Space Shanty LP), but once again it is the lesser lights who are often the most interesting and/or entertaining. Standouts are all over this disc – another eight minute track comes from T2 with No More White Horses from their excellent It’ll All Work Out In Boomland album, Man’s Best Friend from Clark Hutchinson is an almost proto-metal workout, and the self-referencing Wolf by Darryl Way’s Wolf has clear links to Darryl’s Curved Air past, despite the band name sounding as if it’s going to be hard rock rather than prog. There is a smattering of the ‘progressive folk’ which was happening at the time as well, with strong entries from Pacific Drift, Galliard, the un-folk sounding Stud, and cult act Mellow Candle. A band called People perform a wistfully mystical Glastonbury, alluding to the ancient spiritual side of the location, before it was forever sullied by the pink wellies and novelty sunglasses of a huge mass of wannabe weekend hippies trying to be wacky and ‘alternative’ before they go back to work on Monday. It’s a sobering reminder of how some things were more unspoilt back in those heady days. There are misses of course – Sunforest’s hideous kazoo-driven novelty song Lady Next Door should be pre-programmed with a ‘skip’ function – but some of the joys more than make up. Even the exceptionally named Principal Edwards Magic Theatre – here shortened to just Principal Edwards, sadly – pop up with the charming yet surreal tale of The Whizzmore Kid, a hyperactive individual being implored to stop and smell the metaphorical roses. One lyrical nugget informs us that he ‘can pluck a mean banjo, while milking a cow with the other hand’, which is a multi-tasking skill tantalising for all of us who have had those moments when the difficult choice between playing a banjo and milking a cow has to be made.

As if to put a capstone on the collection at complete odds with some of the cheery, psychedelic celebrations present over the three discs, the final set ends with Cream lyricist Pete Brown delivering an accompanied poem Sad Is The Man, which is so utterly soul-suckingly mournful and glum as to make Leonard Cohen appear to have been producing work akin to The Lumberjack Song all of these years. And that perhaps sums up the eclectic variation contained within these 64 tracks. Nobody is going to love them all – but there’s a pretty decent hit rate in there, and it certainly covers the psych, prog, rock, folk and blues promise of the title. Given that labels such as Dawn, Dandelion, Vertigo and Harvest have all produced their own compilations at one time or another, possibly the Decca/Deram element could have been referenced in the title to give more obvious focus – something like On The Threshold Of A Deram maybe, given that the Moody Blues were on their roster – but it does manage to do exactly what it says on the tin, that much is clear. An excellent reminder that Decca weren’t always as stuffy and ‘permanently middle aged’ as their detractors would claim, and a treasure chest of forgotten gems indeed.