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Clear Blue Sky - “Clear Blue Sky” (1970) review

Clear Blue Sky: The First Album Now Remastered

Back when there were less cloudy horizons across the world, global record labels were actually eager for new music (what they’d have called, from their expense-laden desks, the new music) though rarely exporting what’s now called world music. They set up specialised subsidiaries for new cross-genres: EMI started Harvest, Decca had Deram, and Philips founded Vertigo. Starting in 1969 with Colosseum and Juicy Lucy (featuring a teenage Mick Moody), Vertigo signed a power trio with an average age of 18 (the guitarist was younger) for a debut and the label’s 19th release exemplifying the creative passion of contemporary hard prog-psych adapting the structures of heavy blues. As sure as a policewoman falls in love with a policeman, Clear Blue Sky cut the mustard.

    Two school pals in West London’s Acton, John Simms (guitar/vocals) and drummer Ken White, met Mark Sheather (bass) at secondary school. Simms, inspired by the radio that his father always had on at home, got his first guitar as early as infant school. The three musicians formed an R&B/Blues band called Jug Blues in their area now-famous for such music, seeing legends like Howlin’ Wolf live at the famed Ealing Club between their own daily rehearsals in the local Priory Youth Centre.

    Jug Blues—said to have successfully played in Germany—renamed themselves Maluse to enter, and win, a Marquee talent competition. The prize was a demo in the club studio when noticed by Donovan’s manager Ashley Kozak, but he wanted them to be more commercial. A friend of Mark’s knew the Irish ex-pat Patrick Campbell-Lyons, whose first non-recording band The Second Thoughts started in Acton with him as singer fronting what became Jade Warrior. He was a name on the local scene due to albums with Nirvana, the original one that the Seattlers later had to pay up to $100,000 for the name-rights after being taken to court. Nirvana had a Top 40 UK hit with Rainbow Chaser, said to be the first to use phasing throughout rather than sporadically like the Small Faces (it reappears briefly on Clear Blue Sky’s debut). Not only did they release the first rock concept LP in the autumn of 1967 (The Story of Simon Simopath) but also performed with Salvador Dali on French television, when Island unsuccessfully billed him for paint damage to a cello! 

    Lyons thought the band, then called X, were not quite ready when rehearsing although one local journalist thought they were “raw, fresh, with a brutal edge” that set them apart. But Lyons—who has been interviewed in Psychedelic Baby—kept in touch when he became an A&R rep for the new imprint of Vertigo. Impressed by their “personal dynamic” a few months later, he invited them to Island’s studio with him as producer and a new name which they liked: Clear Blue Sky.

    Just released is a superbly remastered edition of their debut album (Esoteric/Cherry Red ECLEC 2595). Essentially their live set at the time with Campbell-Lyons wishing to “catch the moment”, he recalls, it was laid down in two or three days amounting to no more than 24 hours of recording, remembers Simms. He believes the producer wanted to use the studio time for his own projects, so there was no chance for harmonies, more effects or even new songs. They met Chris Wood of Traffic while Zepp were recording their second album upstairs, which they could hear. The subtle organ on Clear Blue Sky was by an anonymous sessioneer who worked with Tom Jones, and flute on the closer was by Jon Field of Jade Warrior, who had attended the same school as the band and was also a friend of the producer. Field would later play flute on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

    The band’s website says the release date was January 1971, discographies and the label itself say (December) 1970. Side one of the vinyl is a three-song suite entitled Journey To The Inside Of The Sun, which some early reviewers misinterpreted as the album title. The band first had them in a different sequence, and the cover of a bird was changed at the last minute to an illustration by Roger Dean, one of the first by that famous artist of progressive album covers. The eponymous LP’s cover was changed again for foreign export and titled Play It Loud, Slade having released an LP of the same title in the UK the month before.

    There are no bonuses, as with all CD issues from such as Repertoire and Si-Wan since the 90s, so presumably none exist from the sessions. But there is one bonus: Esoteric have reinstated the proper ending to the last track Birdcatcher, which was shortened to a perfunctory stop instead of a closing reprise of the track’s riff on all previous CDs since the original vinyl LP. Oh and it has been remastered to a proper loud level, unlike some versions of the (or only my?) rather low-mix vinyl original.

    The beginning of the journey is Sweet Leaf, a stomping instrumental with no connection to Sabbath’s song but rather like the early hard-hitting psych-blues albums of Groundhogs. Twelve-bar bass and drum patterns are interspersed with T2-like guitar blaze, a variety of pedals, desk-engineered effects, even some honky-tonk piano. The opener’s variation has a classical motif from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, also done later by the Moody Blues for The Days of Future Passed. But strap in, this is only the (eight minute) launch. Rocket Ride (named after their local pub!) sings of the torment of a tortured mind hoping for “walking hand in hand…to the Promised Land”, with inventive drumming across the whole kit, guitar solos, riffs aplenty and atmospheric echo. The outro of acoustic strumming leads into I’m Coming Home with great effects for the journey’s end. Taking up where the first vinyl side left off, You Mystify on the power of love (and paying them not to come back!) opens the second side a quarter of a century before grunge was coined: riffs, acoustic breaks, overdubbing as if in a tunnel under the Swiss mountains and enough time changes to light a spliff.

     After “hitting that road of no return”, Tool Of My Trade (after-love and poignancy of dreams) is driven by strumming then finger-picking with subtle organ to underpin the structure, providing fullness as if a rhythm guitar there. Vocals follow the lead guitar for My Heaven, about life and friends we learn from—though all lyrics are strong enough to hold multiple senses, and could be mystical (as suggested by their later albums). This is a pool heavy enough to float a reactor on many levels. Acid guitar territory is covered, before the closer Birdcatcher (the Devil?) has the typical 70s three-piece sound complete with the ‘holes’. Full chords explode over powerhouse bass and drums (surprised the hi-hat withstood), Tull-like flute adds to the progressive feel with another superb guitar solo, and echoing steps build to a cracking crescendo and the reinstated true ending.

    Clearly arrangements were carefully thought-out, a grainy canvas for Simms’ guitar and lyrics that deepen with listening (and age!). It’s progressive without ever-being sluggish, and for this White and Sheather had to be consistently on top of their play. Imagine Incredible Hog, Mayblitz and Steel Mill, the guitar of Toad, Gary Moore’s Skid Row or Strife with flashes of early Uriah Heep alongside Mountain, free-flowing psych energy wed to hard prog complexity balanced on a heavy blues edge for a melodic, always inventive kaleidoscope. Live they were even harder, but without the live clutter of T2 or Mayblitz. A recent review compared them to Wishbone Ash. No, Clear Blue Sky is heavier, but less long-riffy than Budgie. As electrifying now as then, it burns and smoulders long after a first listen. If you sold your original vinyl long ago, like this writer, you’ll always like to have it physically because indispensable to the time.

    Gigging with Free, Rory Gallagher/Taste, Graham Bond, Janis Joplin etc., Birdcatcher was on Vertigo’s sampler in 1971 and My Heaven on their CD box set in ’98 along with Vertigo’s retrospective Time Machine (2005). Why they didn’t issue a second LP from them, as they did with Mayblitz and Jade Warrior, remains a mystery. Mark Sheather left when he got married soon after the album was released, and the band finally folded when Simms joined Tangerine Peel in 1975 replacing Michael Chapman. He left that more commercial band to form The Needle with Ken White and Smith-Campbell from another Vertigo act, Hokus Poke, jamming with fellow-Acton-boy John Entwistle of The Who during his solo LPs period, until White emigrated to Tasmania. Simms joined Ginger Baker’s band, then with the drummer’s son in Karizma, before reforming Clear Blue Sky for the nine-track Destiny in 1990, Baker’s ex-wife designing the cover. The new Clear Blue Sky played the anniversary Isle of Wight Festival before releasing more albums down the years, with one as recently as 2013.

    Destiny was issued on vinyl and cassette first by Saturn Records (SRLP 101), then on CD with two bonus live tracks from the era of their debut via Aftermath Records (1999, AFT 1005, 54.19 mins). Founders Simms and White were joined by Kraznet Montpellier replacing Sheather on bass. Perhaps more assured than their youthful debut, this is still 70s vintage consisting of what would have been their second LP 1971-75. The nine-minute title track is a typical good second LP lead-off, same flavour with confident building on the album before. Varied hooks and time-changes again add to the interest, a little more cosmic spacey with moog and strafing guitar by an axeman with limitless chops reminiscent of Del Bromham.

    The word filler isn’t in their lexicon, but multiple entries for variation and styles that are always plural. There is the same heaviness with atmospheric breaks. The title track’s lyrics about life for the majority (“who hears their screams” in our “thousand-year lives”) can be said to be a theme of some of their songs: Everyman in the Chaucerian sense, the honest working person that the forces of society conspire against, which the band of course also bear witness to in their chosen path. Wah-wah (and vocoder?) add to the energetic solos of the UFO-like Pick Up; Bottom Of Your Soul sees the good side of someone’s character in spite of what life deals them. Wide use of cymbals and the whole kit add to the import: a sizeable budget from gigs must have been for White’s overworked tools of the trade.

    Follow The Light is an uptempo piledriver, lyrics pointing toward the mystic cosmos of later albums, while Back On The Road is a heavy paean to r‘n’r gigging, less starry-eyed than Canned Heat’s take on the theme. When I Call Your Name is the sore-but-not irritating thumb proving they could do it if they wanted to: it is lighter and more mainstream, with non-credited saxophone alongside a Johnny Winter style high-end solo. Waiting For The Day was the nearest they ever came to a single encompassing some of their styles, with harmonies and solo beneath the vocals. The closer Killing Time is similar to the live song Big City Man: staccato rhythm and live trio feel. The other live track Could This Be The Day returns to the motif questioning 9 to 5 life, a rumble opened with another fine solo: Monday blues appropriately articulated with acid guitar, thumping drums and Lemmyish bass. If the choruses labour a little (wasn’t this before the term stadium-anthems?!), unnecessary in view of their usual inventiveness, the over ten minutes of period live material is a most welcome insight into the combo at that time. This album deserves a re-issue too: a truly fine follow-up album for all who love their original sound.

    The dynamic, muscular debut has been flagged as a power trio delivering an inventive set of neo-prog psychedelic blues-metal, a catch-all terminology that is not out of place. It is melodic too, an unforgettable drift into musical nirvana that hasn’t dated one iota, hence fair to call it timeless. The Vertigo historian, Barry Winton, went so far as to rate Clear Blue Sky as the label’s finest work, while the Black Sabbath Appreciation Society called it “a killer from start to finish”. The original sleeve called them “far from ordinary. Their music is refreshingly different, vital and original”. Malcolm Dome in the well-illustrated but rather workman-like booklet essay sees them as embodying a “certain spontaneous, joyous individuality” that is all their own. A seminal album of the time and one of its highly-regarded labels: true originality is an uplifting experience.

- Brian R. Banks
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