May 13, 2024

The accompanying essay to this release tells a story from Warhorse’s first ever gig. After the show, Ian Hunter, singer of the main act, Mott the Hoople, went over to Warhorse bassist Nick Simper, and exclaimed ‘You guys can’t fail to make it!’. Hunter was probably not alone in that opinion since their first album also met with widespread critical acclaim. But their career was brief, and fame eluded them. This welcome double-CD now sheds light on what the fuss was about at the time.  

Deep Purple aficionados will no doubt have recognised the name of Nick Simper who was part of the Mark 1 iteration of Blackmore’s group. History tends to look on Warhorse as Simper’s band but that’s through the lens of history. Deep Purple Mark I were just one of many modestly successful groups at the time, and Warhorse was put together not at Simpers behest but as the backing band of the now-almost-forgotten singer (and actress and model) Marsha Hunt. Neither Hunt nor Simper were happy with the band and the result was that Simper went his own way, kept the Warhorse name, and put together a completely new line-up with guitarist Ged Peck, drummer Mac Poole (who had turned down Led Zeppelin it seems!), vocalist Ashley Holt who would go on to find fame with Rick Wakeman, and amazingly Wakeman himself. But Wakeman was too much in demand and left to join The Strawbs before anything serious was recorded and he was replaced by Frank Wilson.

The self-titled debut album came out in November 1970. It has some echoes of the Purple Mark I sound, but they are slight, and it’s certainly a heavier and a more progressive slice of music than early Deep Purple. Those heavy progressive elements are most visible in the longer tracks, which is most of them considering that five out of seven breach the six-minute mark.  Vulture Blood kicks off the album with some muted organ playing and then a cacophony of sound from the whole band, which observant fans might note is an inversion of the formula used to open Deep Purple In Rock with Speed King (released six months prior to Warhorse, so probably no coincidence). But whereas Speed King is pure rock, Vulture Blood is much funkier and more rhythmic, with a sound closer to Family than Purple (especially with Ashley Holt’s slightly harsh-sounding vocal delivery). It’s a fine piece with the highlight being the very progressive instrumental interplay between guitar and keys. That funky style is also evident in Burning, which also has a vocal line that sounds remarkably like Hawkwind’s Psychedelic Warlords (which came  later).

Woman Of The Devil gives the impression of something different as it opens ponderously like some outtake from Sabbath’s debut album, but is another that then turns to a funky rhythm to drive along the main song.  This one has more of a retro ’60s feel to it with its busy percussion and slightly chaotic layering of guitars and keys. The two most progressive tracks are Chance and Solitude. Both are characterised by an early King Crimson sound: organ, beds of acoustic guitars and long-drawn-out melodies. In sharp contrast to the main fare are two shorter songs. Ritual is a fairly run of the mill 12-bar blues, in which the greatest interest is in the guitar solo where I suspect Ged Peck was told ‘do one like Blackmore’, And he does it very well. The other short song is St Louis, a cover of a minor hit by The Easybeats. It’s faithful to the original and works well in the context of the album.

Warhorse may lack a real standout track and yet each and every song seems to be well-crafted and interestingly arranged. I can’t help thinking how it would have sounded with Wakeman’s keys, but it must be said that Wilson is a fine keyboard player that gave them a heavy Urish Heep-like keyboard sound. The ubiquitous bonus tracks for this release include four of the debut album songs in a live environment, none of which add anything to the studio versions. Strangely, there is no audience noise so I’m not sure if that was clever editing or whether they were live run throughs in the studio. The final bonus track, Miss Jane, is more interesting. It’s a catchy singalong number, almost as if Warhorse were themselves trying to write in the style of The Easybeats.

To these ears, Warhorse was a positive progression from the Mk 1 Purple albums and a launching pad for greater things, but it took until the summer of 1972 before the sophomore album, Red Sea, saw the light of day. Ged Peck had by then left and been replaced by Pete Parks. After Warhorse, fans must have had high expectations, but Red Sea is clearly a step backwards. The title track gets things underway in a confident and upbeat mood, and apparently Blackmore called up Simper to say he liked that one! But then things start going off the rails with Back In Time, which admittedly starts with a solid riff but after a couple of minutes diverts into a meandering and unstructured five-minute guitar solo. The second long track on the album, suffers a similar fate. It has an impressive slow theme to open with but then we get a six-minute drum solo! It seems that the budget for the album was cut drastically half-way through the recording process, so it’s a good bet that these solos were the easy way out to get the album finished on time.

The remaining tracks fail to get the pulse beating until the closing track, I (Who Have Nothing).  If, like me, you weren’t aware that the song was a cover, you’d have just assumed it was a brilliant prog rock song written by Warhorse. Instead, it was a hit in the UK in 1963 for Shirley Bassey of all people, although its origins go back to an Italian song (called Uno Dei Tanti) sung by a certain Joe Sentieri in 1961. Bassey’s emotion-soaked interpretation is impressive but Warhorse turn it into something quite outstanding.  Sadly, the song would prove to be the last the band committed to vinyl. A number of later demos were recorded later and included in this compilation. Mostly they show an attempt to become more of a mainstream pop band, and apart from the enjoyable House Of Dolls they tend to show that the band are not up to it.  

After Red Sea, the band struggled on without a recording contract, and without drummer Mac Poole who left to join Gong. Poole was replaced by Barney James who along with Ashley Holt eventually left to join Rick Wakeman in 1974. That that was the death knell of the band. There was, however, nearly an indirect final fling for Warhorse. In 1975, Barney James started putting together a concept album entitled Köneg: The Second Coming, performed by the Warhorse line-up.  Twenty minutes of music was put down as a one-sided demo album but the project didn’t get further. It’s a fascinating piece of prog and can be found on YouTube for those who wish to hear this final piece by the Warhorse team.

Simper states in the essay that ‘at the end of the day, you need a bit of luck, and we didn’t get that break. It’s the way it goes, but at least some people remember us fondly now’. That just about sums up their sorts. They had the ability to make it but not the breaks, and while Red Sea is evidently a band in trouble, the debut album is a shining example of early ‘70s prog rock that should be cherished by prog and hard rock fans.