The 20 Greatest British Blues Albums: 1967 – 1970
Part two of our history of British blues finds the scene getting louder, hairier and taking a more experimental turn.
This article first appeared in The Blues Magazine #2, August 2012.
By the mid-60s, the blues-fuelled energy of the mod clubs in the earlier part of the decade had drifted and all-night dancing had been replaced by a laid-back, dope-smoking vibe. Key players such as John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Peter Green reached a crossroads in their careers, as the blues scene split between purists and those taking the path towards out-and-out rock. Meanwhile, the likes of Free, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull took their first steps towards 70s greatness. Here we look at 20 significant albums of 1967-70…
Raw Blues (Ace Of Clubs)
Compiled and produced by blues buff Mike Vernon, and released on the Decca subsidiary Ace Of Clubs in January 1967, Raw Blues – like Decca’s earlier Blues Now – combines a mix of US blues veterans with the young UK talent who took inspiration from them. The draw for many at the time was the inclusion of both sides of the rare, limited edition single released by John Mayall and Eric Clapton on Vernon’s own Purdah Records. Coupling the Clapton-penned instrumental Bernard Jenkins with Mayall’s slow blues Lonely Years, it was recorded around one microphone in Wessex Studios in an enjoyable attempt to recreate the sound of the Chicago blues the pair loved and were influenced by. Mayall is joined by Stevie Winwood, playing soulful organ under the pseudonym Steve Anglo, for Long Night, and by Peter Green for Evil Woman, a mournful blues with Green employing his trademark sustained notes on guitar. Pianist Otis Spann accompanied Muddy Waters on his tour of the UK in 1964, recording the three tracks here while in London, including Pretty Girls Everywhere, where he is backed by Clapton, then still in The Yardbirds. Elsewhere, Champion Jack Dupree and Curtis Jones also show the young pretenders how it’s done.
John Mayall And The Blues Breakers
A Hard Road (Decca)
Any of this sound familiar? By the time John Mayall’s Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton had commenced its unprecedented album-chart run, Clapton had already quit to hook up with jazzers-on-the-make Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker and form Cream. Being both canny and lucky, Mayall already had another young master guitarist warming up in the wings in the form of Peter Green, who was sufficiently impressive for the inevitable calls of ‘Where’s Eric?’ (echoes of the ones faced a year earlier by Jeff Beck in The Yardbirds) to die away within weeks. Like the master bandleader he was, Mayall drew upon Green’s strengths as he had Clapton’s, and used Green to bring out the melancholia in his music, just as he’d used Clapton to bring out the anger. Green was honoured with no less than four showcases: two instrumental (his own The Supernatural, an inspiration for Carlos Santana, and Freddy King’s The Stumble, which echoed Clapton’s Freddy King showcase Hideaway on the earlier album) and two vocal (his own Evil Woman Blues and Willie Cobb’s staple You Don’t Love Me). On its February 1967 release, the album charted more than respectably, if not as spectacularly as its predecessor, but by summer Green had left to form his own band, Fleetwood Mac.
Fleetwood Mac (Blue Horizon)
Leaving John Mayall's stern employ in 1967 but initially failing to persuade bassist John McVie to jump ship, Peter Green hooked up with Mick Fleetwood, bassist Bob Brunning and, as co-frontman, pint-sized extrovert Jeremy Spencer, who had accepted Elmore James as his personal saviour. McVie took the plunge just in time to cut most of their first album: self-titled, but informally known as Dog And Dustbin after its cover photo. Spencer was a one-trick pony (though he did his Elmore trick very well), but the album admirably showcased Green’s wearily soulful voice and eloquent post-BB guitar. Mixing covers (Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, the inevitable Elmore) with originals by Green and Spencer, it was as austerely purist as any Mayall album. Nevertheless, it was a commercial triumph for Mike Vernon’s fledgling Blue Horizon label: even without a hit single attached, it spent 37 weeks on the chart, peaking at No.4. Dues duly paid, Fleetwood Mac chased the album with single Black Magic Woman, which proved they were ready to innovate. A second album, Mr Wonderful, followed, as did a rather successful instrumental called Albatross.
Wheels Of Fire (Polydor)
Given the egos involved, it was a miracle that Cream even made it to a third album, but Wheels Of Fire – the world’s first double platinum album, no less – remains a classic, even if it pretty much destroyed the group in the process. The first half was recorded at IBC Studios in London and Atlantic Studios in New York between July and August 1967 and saw the band stretching out in more psychedelic directions, while still retaining their blues roots – as their versions of Howlin’ Wolf’s Sitting On Top Of The World and Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign demonstrate. Although the second half was subtitled Live At The Fillmore, it was actually culled from six shows in March 1968, recorded live both at the Fillmore and the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco. The set included a cranked-up cover of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, which remains one of the most electrifying versions ever recorded.
Me And The Devil
The Anthology Of British Blues (Liberty)
This album is a credible snapshot of a vibrant British acoustic blues scene featuring the talents of Dave Kelly, the ‘Memphis Minnie’-esque feel of Jo Ann Kelly, second time around Groundhog Tony TS McPhee and the Delta blues style of Andy Fernbach. Blues fans Jo Ann and her brother Dave knew McPhee from Dave Carey’s Swing Shop in Streatham. Across town, Liberty records A&R man Andrew Lauder was looking for new talent and reputedly snaffled up the Groundhogs for £50. Hogs manager Roy Fisher negotiated a series of Hogs albums and McPhee had the idea of recording in front of a live audience, an idea rejected by producer Mike Batt. The resulting compilation wasn’t a commercial success, but remains a good example of the British acoustic blues scene finding its feet, with Jo Ann Kelly confirming her standing as the UK’s greatest female blues singer and acoustic slide guitarist.
40 Blue Fingers Freshly Packed & Ready To Serve (Blue Horizon)
Stan Webb once made his big entrance trailing his long guitar lead behind him through a darkened, packed club, to strike the opening note. Silence! Someone had trodden on the lead. The lights came up and, with the lead duly recovered, he repeated the grand gesture.
Chicken Shack’s history goes back to 1964 with the Sounds Of Blue, featuring Christine Perfect on bass. Soon she went to college leaving Stan to hone his craft at The Star Club in Hamburg. Come ’68, she’s back on piano and sensual vocals.
40 Blue Fingers was a startling debut for the group, with the combination of Webb’s crisp guitar lines and shrill vocal wail counter-balancing Perfect’s androgynous cool, all neatly tied up by Mike Vernon’s sparse production. And as Perfect emotes on When The Train Comes Back and Webb attacks The First Time I Met The Blues with verve, all the white blues clichés are blown away.
Getting To The Point (Deram)
The Savoy Brown Blues Band’s name came from an amalgamation of the old jazz label Savoy records, with the surname of several leading blues and soul artists of the time. The Blues Band element was quietly dropped as the band embraced rock-blues.
Savoy Brown was originally built round the harp and guitar axis of John O’Leary and Kim Simmons. This aptly-titled second album saw vocalist Chris Youlden replacing Brice Portius; the group was still a work in progress, but the sophomore LP benefited from mostly original material, compared with the welter of covers that composed the 1967 debut.
Chris Youlden provided the band with a new creative focal point and was, as producer Mike Vernon noted, “an absolute dynamite singer”. Better still, he could write, and his brusque Taste And Try Before You Buy (the first single), Flood In Houston, Mr Downchild and a cover of Honey Bee delivered emotionally wrought blues.
Ahead Rings Out (Island)
Intense, hard-driven rock-blues with jazzy edges, Ahead Rings Out proved that guitarist Mick Abrahams still had much to offer after leaving Tull.
He smartly surrounded himself with an ‘A team’ of players, including multi-instrumentalist Jack Lancaster, who brought both flair and imagination to a powerhouse outfit. The band’s name came from Abrahams’ mate, pianist Graham Waller; the album’s tape op was Robin Black who would later produce Tull.
Given Ahead Rings Out more or less captured their live set, the Pig were curiously circumspect about the album at the time. They needn’t have been, as it was a success, driven by the unfettered heavy riffing of the thunderous Know It’s Only, outrageously jazzy jam The Modern Alchemist, the bottleneck-led blues of Dear Jill and the ultra-heavy Ain’t Ya Coming Home Babe. Pulverising rock-blues at its best.
Pious Bird Of Good Omen (Blue Horizon)
The cover illustrated the album’s selling points, with a mystical woman in a black cloak (Black Magic Woman) holding a big white bird (Albatross). Comprising Fleetwood Mac’s first four singles and B-sides, Pious Bird Of Good Omen included Danny Kirwan’s underrated instrumental Jigsaw Puzzle Blues. There’s also two tracks from Mr Wonderful, and The Big Boat and Just The Blues by Eddie Boyd with the Fleetwoods as backing band.
Both the album title and Albatross come from Green’s reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Mariner: ‘The ancient mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen.’ Presumably he was also drawn to the author’s invocation of the supernatural.
The opening part of Albatross was apparently inspired by a Clapton phrase Peter heard in The Blues Breakers, while Rambling Pony is a thinly disguised reworking of Muddy’s Rollin’ & Tumbling, but it’s Brit blues with presence.
Led Zeppelin (Atlantic)
When The Yardbirds split in July 1968, guitarist Jimmy Page decided to honour their touring commitments in Scandinavia with a newly recruited band dubbed The New Yardbirds, featuring Robert Plant on vocals, John Paul Jones on bass and John Bonham on drums.
Returning to England the group, renamed Led Zeppelin, recorded their debut in only 36 hours (over several weeks), as the material had already been worked out on the tour. Musically, Led Zeppelin further developed the heavy blues-rock pioneered by Cream and Jeff Beck, which Page had been pushing The Yardbirds towards. The Willie Dixon-penned You Shook Me, and I Can’t Quit You Baby (with exceptional soloing from Page) are the most overtly bluesy numbers, while the thundering Communication Breakdown influenced both punk and heavy metal. Dazed And Confused, meanwhile, adapted Jake Holmes’ folk original into a psychedelic blues showcase for Page and his bowing of the guitar.
Keef Hartley Band
A fine example of a self-confident British blues-rock band, the debut release from this outfit led by sometime-John Mayall drummer Hartley is pitched somewhere between Blodwyn Pig, Colosseum, and American horn-led outfits such as Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears.
The album is topped and tailed by skits where John Mayall sacks Keef over the phone, and vice-versa. The former Rory Storm and Artwoods drummer proved a stern bandleader in his own right, sacking original vocalist Owen Finnegan halfway through sessions for the album, even though he co-penned several of its songs. His replacement, Miller Anderson, is in fine voice but doesn’t contribute any songs here.
The band’s artistic freedom can be heard in the inspired playing, sharp arrangements and astute dynamics on the album: Born To Die could be the Allman Brothers, while Sinning For You is carried by its glorious horn refrain. Sadly, the band’s refusal to be filmed at Woodstock proved an ultimately suicidal career decision.
Blues Obituary (Liberty)
The title referred to Tony McPhee’s intentions to stretch the blues genre and experiment more in a power trio format, hence the sleeve featuring McPhee in funeral garb at Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery, with a copy of Paul Oliver’s Blues Fell This Morning in his hands.
Blues Obituary marked a major step for the Groundhogs, towards the progressive style of 1970’s Thank Christ For The Bomb, with the emphasis on sonic explorations within a loosely defined blues format.
The opener BDD (Blind, Deaf & Dumb) made No.1 in the Lebanon, while the mangled blues of Daze Of The Weak features spacey guitar explorations over Ken Pustelnik’s free-form drumming. McPhee’s matches him on the nine-string eastern drone of Light Was The Day, the title being a reversal of Willie Johnson’s Dark Is the Night. Blues, Carruthers, but not as we know it...
Tons Of Sobs (Island)
Named by British blues granddaddy Alexis Korner, Free evolved from London R&B group Black Cat Bones. Guitarist Paul Kossoff and drummer Simon Kirke found Paul Rodgers singing in a Finsbury Park blues club, while Korner introduced bassist Andy Fraser to the band, who, despite being only 15 years old, was already a veteran Blues Breaker.
This remarkably knowing debut opens and closes with the gentle, neo-classical Over The Green Hills. In between, the young shavers strut their stuff through Booker T’s The Hunter, the self-penned Wild Indian Woman (‘You don’t need your horses, baby, you got me to ride’), and I’m A Mover. One suspects a worldly chick was making someone late for class.
Rodgers’ voice flows effortlessly between raunchiness and melancholia, while Koss knows when to hold back and when to let rip with the vibrato. The recording owes its bourbon-soaked rawness to visionary producer Guy Stevens, a conduit for US R&B to the UK, via the Sue record label and The Scene club.
Sweet Pain (Mercury)
Called 'England's Heavy Blues Super Group’ in the States, Sweet Pain featured members of the Blues Breakers, Blues Inc and The Retaliation, but were in reality a supergroup that never really got off the ground. Crippled by management intransigence, Victor Brox and Aynsley Dunbar had to record incognito as Sam Crozier and Junior Dunn respectively.
The band comprised John O’Leary on harp, Annette Brox – later to become an opera singer – on vocals, Dick Heckstall-Smith on horns, Keith Tillman on bass and guitarist Stuart Cowell, who disappeared after the recording. The band loosely wrote and arranged the material in advance but only met as a unit in the studio. Melody Maker called them ‘hot and heavy’, as evidenced by Sick & Tired, while O’Leary and Heckstall-Smith were featured on the instrumental General Smith, named after Dick, and Brox sang beautifully on It’s A Woman’s Way. Real potential only partially realised.
Anthology Of British Blues, Volume One (Immediate)
Immediate Records was Andrew Loog Oldham’s love child, and in 1969 the blues became swept up in his label’s mission statement: ‘Happy to be Part of the Industry of Human Happiness’.
Anthology Of British Blues Volume 1 was a case of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’, being an expanded double album’s worth of the Blues Anytime series from the mid-60s. Predictably it included house guitarist and producer Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jeremy Spencer et al. Disappointingly, Mayall’s Telephone Blues is omitted, as is the early Purdah single Flapjack by Stone Masonry. But there is Savoy Brown’s recorded debut I Tried, the unrestrained blues belter Jo-Ann Kelly, a gravel-voiced rod Stewart, and the conviction and integrity of Dave Kelly and Tony McPhee. Meanwhile, Somebody Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight – by Fleetwood Mac’s Jeremy Spencer – is an Elvis piss-take that’s in keeping with the label’s irreverent approach.
Stand Up (Island)
Establishing Tull's trademark eclectic sound, Stand Up featured We Used To Know, a track later subject to much debate over whether The Eagles lifted Martin Barre’s solo for Hotel California.
Whatever the truth, considering the guitarist was supposed to be ‘terrified’ at the time of recording it, it’s a stellar performance. Aside from the innovative pop-up inside sleeve, Stand Up also realised the kind of lofty musical ambitions that explained ex-guitarist Mick Abrahams departure from the band after 1968 debut This Was.
The shift from blues-rock to more sophisticated horizons (incorporating jazz, folk and ethnic influences) is well played out here. There’s still the pile-driving Nothing Is Easy and New Day Yesterday, but the Bachian Bouree and the emotive flute and string arrangement of Reason For Waiting take them to a new level. Once there, the eastern flavoured Fat Man advances the esoteric tones first explored on A Song For Jeffrey.
Killing Floor (Spark)
Killing Floor is the archetypal tale of a 60s combo in search of musical truth. Their debut gig was as support to Beefheart at Middle Earth, they jammed with Kossoff and Kirke, and rehearsals included a trip to pick up bass player Stu MacDonald, who was kipping in his van outside Clapham Common station.
Their debut was full of mistakes, stops and starts and guitar dropouts. At the point of recording, their manager/ agent/producer/publisher asked for original material, at which point vocalist Bill Thorndycraft headed for the toilet to rewrite the lyrics to several Chicago blues standards.
And yet the album has seldom dropped off the catalogue in the intervening 43 years. It’s raw, fierce and rocking, as exemplified by Bedtime Blues and Nobody By My Side. Guitarist Mick Clarke still plays Woman You Need Love and probably did so at their recent 2012 Sweden rock appearance.
Ten Years After
Live At Fillmore East (Capitol)
Originally recorded over the space of a weekend in February 1970 at New York’s Fillmore East by engineer Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix/Led Zeppelin), the widely bootlegged Live At The Fillmore East 1970 didn’t get an official release until 2001, after the master tapes were reportedly discovered down the back of drummer Ric Lee’s sofa.
Quite how the tapes got there is anyone’s guess, but the recordings reveal a band at the top of their powers and racing through a set of originals and blues standards including tunes by Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and Sonny Boy Williamson.
The 10-minute, drum solo-tastic recording of the band’s own The Hobbit now sounds worryingly Spinal Tapesque, but Alvin Lee’s guitar solos are as impressive as ever. Apparently, critics at the time slated them for being all style and no substance – something that would never happen today, obviously.
On The Boards (Polydor)
When Taste – Rory Gallagher, Richard McCracken and John Wilson – released their second album in 1970, it should have been the defining moment in the career of a power trio who had already taken the music world by storm.
Produced by Tony Colton, the 10-song album was written entirely by Gallagher, who also played guitar, harmonica and alto saxophone – yes, really – on the recordings. Coming hot on the heels of a residency at the Marquee Club, support slots with Cream and Blind Faith, they genuinely had the world at their feet.
Sadly, the band fell apart shortly after the album was released. Gallagher’s glittering solo career would soon begin in earnest with 1971’s self-titled LP. And for anyone who thinks the Irish guitarist was all overdrive and shrieking solos, the jazz grooves of Taste’s second and final studio LP will come as a pleasant surprise.
Climax Blues Band
A Lot Of Bottle (Harvest)
Formerly the Climax Chicago Blues Band (the name was shortened to accommodate the then-titled Chicago Transit Authority), the band were built round the twin musical pillars of guitarist/vocalist Pete Haycock and baritone vocals and sax/harp playing of Colin Cooper. Cooper’s history reached back to the 1965 mod band The Hipster Image, whose B-side Make Her Mine was resurrected by Japanese producer Yasuharu Konishi 34 years later to become a hit in Japan.
Having cut the well-received Play On, Climax signed with the progressive Harvest label to explore their heavier blues-rock sound, in which Cooper’s deeply wrought phrasing brought real presence to bear on the self-penned Everyday and Willy Dixon’s Seventh Son, while Haycock starred on an extended intense studio jam Reap What I Have Sown and Long Lovin’ Man. A Lot Of Bottle is the perfect link between Chicago blues and the new blues era.