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20 best: UK psych records ever made

Written by FACT Team on Sunday, March 11 2012

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Words: Richard Norris

 

I first got into psych through dealings with a local label in St Albans, where I grew up.

The label was called Waldo’s and released a number of odd post-punk singles from bands called the Bodies and the Tea Set, and was run by a graphic designer called Phil Smee, who designed record sleeves for Motorhead, Elvis Costello, The Damned and a heap of Demon/Edsel and Ace reissues.

Waldo’s morphed into psychedelic reissue imprint Bam Caruso, and I joined as teaboy-cum-label manager. Bam Caruso released dozens of albums, from artists like the Seeds, the Left Banke, The Eyes, July, SRC, as well as the soundtrack to the TV series The Prisoner and 20 compilation albums of UK psychedelia. I was just an enthusiastic teenager, taking it all in, and Phil’s knowledge and attitude had a profound effect. I’ve been seeking out odd psych and motorik tunes ever since, from all over the world.

After Dick Rowe famously failed to sign the Beatles to Decca, 60s A&R men were terrified of missing out on the next big thing.



The 20 compilations – the Rubble series – had suitably psychedelic names like Staircase To Nowhere, The Psychedelic Snarl and The 49 Minute Technicolour Dream. They were made up of songs by bands from around ’66-’68, who had managed to get deals with labels like Decca, Parlophone, Pye or Philips. After Dick Rowe famously failed to sign the Beatles to Decca, 60s A&R men were terrified of missing out on the next big thing, so hundreds of beat groups of the era got deals to make one 45 single, no matter how unlikely their song was to be a hit.

This A&R bonanza, combined with newly developed effects such as phasing and flanging and the extreme use of reverb and echo meant that during this two year period some of the oddest records ever made came out on these major labels. Most sold very few copies and were promptly forgotten about, until a small band of collectors started unearthing them in the 70s and 80s.

The records started to increase in value, from hundreds to thousands of pounds in some cases, such was their scarcity. A few appeared on badly recorded bootlegs. Bam Caruso was the first label to legally license these records, working from the original master tapes and lavishly packaging each compilation with archivist’s sleevenotes.

Working at Bam Caruso was like attending psychedelic university.



We started getting in touch with the musicians, and Phil Smee even invented a new term, ‘freakbeat’, to describe these slightly weird mod records, one which has since entered the general lexicon and become a recognised a genre name. 

We also ran a magazine called Strange Things Are Happening, a forerunner to Uncut and Mojo, with features on cult records, films and pop art. At its height the magazine was selling around 25-30,000 copies, but it didn’t last very long, as I moved to London, started writing for NME and got a record deal with Warners as The Grid.

Bam Caruso records still come out occasionally – there are 20 CDs of the Rubble series available – and Phil is one of the UK’s top designers, specialising in reissues, box sets and lavish packages, like the recent 19-disc Sandy Denny box set.

 Working with Phil was like attending psychedelic university. We’d sit and make compilation tapes all day from his record collection, which is the largest I’ve ever seen, spread over a few floors of his house. 

Some of those influences have found their way into both the Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve records I make with Erol Alkan and into the Time and Space Machine.

A worldwide top 20 psych will have to wait. Instead, here’s a UK psych featuring tracks I discovered a couple of years before Acid House at Bam Caruso.

Richard Norris’s second album as The Time & Space Machine, Taste The Lazer, is out March 26 on Tirk.

01: THE FACTORY
‘PATH THROUGH THE FOREST’
(MGM 1444, 1968)


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Three Surrey-based teens, formerly known as Souvenir Badge Factory, deliver a bona fide drone-pop classic. ‘Path Through The Forest’ is a Grimm, hallucinatory tale that opens with a burst of feedback, quickly diving headfirst into one of the greatest motorik guitar and drum workouts put to tape, hinting at the promise of Neu!’s locked groove a few years down the line. “It could drive you insane,” suggests singer Jack Brand. Worth being sectioned for.


02: THE OPEN MIND
‘MAGIC POTION’
(PHILIPS BF 1805, 1969)


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Apocalyptic bad trip blues of the finest hue, ‘Magic Potion’ sounds like one of the earliest (and best) stoner metal singles, up there with Blue Cheer. A Sabbath-heavy riff opens proceedings as singer Mike Brancaccio bangs on about the mind-opening properties of his magic potion. “All of a sudden there’s a different world appearing before my eyes… if you don’t want to try this potion, leave it all for me,” he says, greedily. I would have quite liked to have seen them at Happening 44 on Gerrard St in 1968.


03: JULY
‘DANDELION SEEDS’
(MAJOR MINOR MM 568, 1968)


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Managed by Spencer Davis, Ealing’s July released their first single ‘My Clown’/’Dandelion Seeds’ on Major Minor in 1968. Both sides are sharp but the flip just edges it, thanks to its killer intro groove and a super-tight-ass drum kit – providing a mesmerising backbone for Tom Newman’s tremolo vocals and Tony Duhig’s fuzz tone. As Julian Cope put it, it sounds like “Can in hipsters”. Tom Newman went on to produce Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.


04: DANTALIAN’S CHARIOT
‘THE MAD MAN RUNNING THROUGH THE FIELDS’
(COLUMBIA DB 8260, 1967)


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Top drawer London beat head Zoot Money, mainstay at ace face clubs like the Flamingo in Wardour St, took a decidedly left turn with this pastoral ode to losing your mind. Future Police guitarist Andy Summers hands in one of his trademark circular motifs. In a parallel universe, and round at my house, ‘Every Breath You Take’ is an obscure B-side and this is the worldwide hit.


05: THE ACCENT
‘RED SKY AT NIGHT’
(DECCA  F 12679, 1967)


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Dick Rowe’s decision to turn down the Beatles had a marked effect at Decca, and many other labels like it. Scores of bands got signed to one-off single deals, as A&R departments were desperate not to miss the next big thing. As this signing spree collided with psychedelia’s technicolour dream, the results were often unlike anything else released by a major record company before or since. The Accent’s sole 45 on Decca, produced by Mike Vernon, is a case in point. Its acoustic introduction gives way to caveman guitar riffing, heavily reverbed vocals, a glowing red sky and a shepherd’s warning, switching back to a quick madrigal before bursting into a solo that seems to have been recorded underwater. Needless to say it didn’t bother the top 40.

06: NIRVANA
‘RAINBOW CHASER’
(ISLAND WIP 6029, 1968)


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The original Nirvana were an Irish-Greek duo featuring Patrick Campbell Lyons and Alex Spyropoulos. They can probably lay claim to releasing the earliest rock opera/concept album with their debut release The Story Of Simon Simopath, which predated The Pretty Things’ SF Sorrow, The Kinks’ Arthur and The Who’s Tommy, and includes the gorgeous ‘Pentecost Hotel’, a track right up there with the finest baroque pop of The Left Banke. Second album ‘All Of Us’ yielded this slice of phased orchestral beauty. Odd fact – Patrick Campbell Lyons once turned up at [Erol Alkan’s indie/electroclash club] Trash.


07: THE APPLE
‘BUFFALO BILLYCAN
(PAGE ONE POF 101, 1968)


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Catchy, piano and offbeat guitar-driven melodic psych from Cardiff’s The Apple. Their album An Apple A Day is a highly sought after UK rarity. Initial copies came with a leaflet from the Apple and Pear Marketing Board, the organisation that coined the phrase used for the album’s title. You can hear echoes of this Barrett-esque slice of psych pop art in everything from Julian Cope’s Sunspots to Super Furry Animals to Django Django.


8: YARDBIRDS
‘HAPPENINGS TEN YEARS TIME AGO’
(COLUMBIA DB8024, 1968)


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I’ve refrained from including tracks from the most well known psych acts in this list, mainly due to lack of space, but this particular premier league belter deserves inclusion. ‘Happening Ten Years Time Ago’ is a full-on, mind-bending atonal guitar assault, the only Yardbirds single to feature both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, as well as John Paul Jones on bass. It’s the pinnacle of a blistering handful of Yardbirds singles – a menacing, eastern-influenced, heavy mod funk. Dazed and confused hallucinations abound, as singer Keith Relf sinks “deep into the well of time” like some pilled-up Nostradamus. Quintessential.


09: JASON CREST
‘BLACK MASS’
(PHILIPS BF 1809, 1968)


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After producing a batch of poppy, airy singles, Tonbridge’s Jason Crest go all esoteric on us with this screamer of a B-side, their fifth 45 release for Philips. Producer Fritz Fryer cooks up a frazzled gem, AS baroque organs battle it out with backwards guitars, gregorian chants, and echos stuck on repeat. This is a paranoid, doomy psychedelic death trip: singer Terry Clarke screams his lungs out, mumbling bug-eyed couplets about malignant forces and time being ruled by sin. No wonder the record company initially refused to put it out.


10: THE HUSH
‘GREY’
(FONTANA TF 944, 1968)


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When I worked with Phil Smee at Bam Caruso in the mid-80s, we needed a name to describe a particular strain of singles we were discovering at the bottom of the crates. Phil came up with the term freakbeat. These tracks took the essence of mod and added heavy lysergic kick, more hooks than Jaws and nagging melody. ‘Grey’ formed a cornerstone of many Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve DJ sets, mainly due to the tight snare hit that kickstarts the tune. Solid, pounding, relentless, this mod stormer is freakbeat at its absolute pinnacle. Produced by the dad of someone out of the Strokes.

11: BAMBOO SHOOT
‘THE FOX HAS COME TO GROUND’
(COLUMBIA DB 8370, 1968)


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This West Country band’s complex narrative got banned by the BBC for alleged drug reference, causing a near-riot amongst students in Bristol, as its release was raising money for student Rag week. Recorded in Abbey Road’s Studio One, with George Harrison in attendance, this mix of chanting monks, Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, spiders and coffins did get some airtime however – John Peel played it for eight weeks in a row.


12: BOEING DUVEEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL SOUP
‘JABBERWOCK’
(PARLOPHONE R 5696, 1968)


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A bonkers reworking of the Lewis Carroll poem, this grandly orchestrated freakout features the voice and mind of Dr Sam Hutt, a well-known rock and roll doctor who serviced The Who, Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones and others. A meeting with Gram Parsons, arranged by Keith Richards, turned Dr Hutt onto country – he’d later emerge as singing cowboy Hang Wangford. A very long way from the off-kilter English whimsy of the Beautiful Soup.


13: SAM GOPAL
ESCALATOR EP
(STABLE SLE 8001, 1968)


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Stable released a number of West London milestones, including this tabla-tinged EP, fronted by Indian percussionist Sam Gopal, whose band were often to be seen playing on top of a carpet at London ‘scene’ venues such as Middle Earth. The most resonant aspect of the band however was Ian Willis, fuzz guitarist, singer and former Jimi Hendrix roadie, soon to be reborn as Lemmy. The best Motorhead record you’ve never heard.


14: CALEB
‘BABY YOUR PHRASING IS BAD’
(PHILIPS BF 1588, 1967)


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The work of Caleb Quaye, relative of Findlay, later a sessioneer for Elton John, Mick Jagger et al. ‘Baby Your Phrasing Is Bad’ comes on like Kevin Shields tripped over the tape machine while recording a solo and got it stuck on quarter speed. Caleb is unduly concerned with a young lady’s diction, but doesn’t exactly come across so clear himself, as the whole track has the phase dial set to eleven.


15: RAMESES AND SELKET
‘IN MY MINDS EYE’
(CBS 3717, 1968)


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Martin Raphael was Sheffield’s answer to Sun Ra. A former gym instructor turned central heating salesman, Martin claimed to be in contact with the Egyptian god Rameses, who informed him that it was his mission to teach the world the truth about the universe. Martin duly changed his name to Rameses and searched for a record deal, as obviously releasing a whacked-out psychedelic single was the best way to achieve this. CBS took the bait, and ‘Crazy One’/’In My Minds Eye’, recorded with his wife as Rameses and Selket, was the result. It’s orchestrated, wonky exotica, with Ram’s dulcet tones somehow reminding me of Genesis P.Orridge. Spooky.

16: 23rd TURNOFF
‘MICHAEL ANGELO’
(DERAM DM 150, 1967)


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Liverpool’s 23rd Turnoff must have spent a bit of time in their tour bus, as their name comes from the 23rd Turnoff on the M6, the junction leading to their hometown. This charmed, waltz-time, psychedelic folk epic is a pop-sike classic, beautifully covered recently by Johnny, the duo consisting of Euros Childs and Norman Blake.


17. THE PRETTY THINGS
‘DEFECTING GREY’
(COLUMBIA DB 8300, 1967)


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Described by Jon Savage as “an album’s worth of ideas in one side of a single,” ‘Defecting Grey’ is a fine example of the widescreen, multi-layered approach adopted by many UK psych acts. It opens with a low drone, some medieval plucking and exotic cymbal, segueing into a 3/4 beat with a gently lapping sitar. And then… all hell breaks loose. Deep beats and fuzz collide in a pre-metal freak show, then it’s back to the sitars, then off again on another tangent, then a drunken pub singalong, and round and round again. Maximal.


18: TINTERN ABBEY
‘VACUUM CLEANER’
(DERAM DM 164, 1967)


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“Fix me up with your sweet dose, I am feeling like a ghost,” runs the chorus, casting aside any thoughts that this tremolo’ed fuzz wobbler was anything to do with tidying up. Record Mirror predicted great things for the band, but this summery ode got lost in the Christmas rush on its release in December 1967, and the group promptly imploded. The original 45 currently goes for over a grand.


19: RARE BIRD
‘DEVIL’S HIGH CONCERN’
(CHARISMA CB 120, 1970)


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Unlike most other singles on this list, Rare Bird’s 45 actually shifted bucketloads of copies. The main chart attraction in this case was the A-side, a dirgey prog yawn-fest called Sympathy. The real action takes place on the flip, where Dave Kaffinetti’s keyboard filth overload elevates proceedings somewhat. Dave later played Viv Savage, a keyboard player who dies in a swamp gas accident, in This Is Spinal Tap.


20: SHARON TANDY
‘HOLD ON’
(ATLANTIC 584 194, 1968)


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South African vocalist Sharon Tandy put out a handful of blue-eyed soul singles in the Dusty Springfield/Julie Driscoll vein, and was the first white artist to record for Stax, backed by both Booker T and the MGs and Issac Hayes. However, it’s this fast paced mod wig-out that has turned many a psychedelic head. Backed by modernist icons Les Fleur de Lys, ‘Hold On’ features a guitar solo so blistering it was (incorrectly) rumoured to be by Jimmy Page.

Richard Norris

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