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Chris Spedding - “The RAK Years” (2017) review


Chris Spedding “The RAK Years” (7T/s Records, 2017)

When one thinks of session musicians, guitarists in particular, Chris Spedding is one of the first to come to mind, and for very good reason. Spedding was voted second in the “Best Jazz Guitarist” category of Melody Maker’s 1970 Reader’s Poll, an accolade he would achieve a couple of years running, due to his work with artists such as Pete Brown And His Battered Ornaments, who played a psychedelic fusion of rock and roll and jazz, vibraphonist Frank Ricotti, as part of the Frank Ricotti Quartet, and Cream member Jack Bruce on his Top Ten charting solo album “Songs For A Tailor.”

In the early 1970s Spedding was in demand on major pop and rock sessions with artists such as Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Shirley Bassey. In late 1972 he teamed up with ex-Free bassist Andy Fraser to form The Sharks, with drummer Marty Simon and vocalist Steve “Snips” Parsons. The Sharks toured extensively and recorded two LPs, but Spedding still managed to contribute guitar work on hit records by David Essex and The Wombles during this period. Later, Spedding produced the early demos for The Sex Pistols, which helped the band obtain a record deal and introduced them to his friend, producer Chris Thomas, who helped The Pistols define their sound. He also did session work with Frankie Miller on the 1976 “Full House” LP and took time to tour with John Cale, Roy Harper and Bryan Ferry.

Despite his success as a guitar for hire, Spedding wanted a solo career to show the music world and record buyers what he had to offer and to be known as more than the guy in italics on the back of everyone else’s records. While he had dabbled in solo work along the way, “The RAK Years” documents Spedding’s focused efforts at making a real solo career between 1976 and 1980, in the form of four LPs and numerous singles, all included in this brand new collection from Cherry Red Records, UK, released on their 7T’s Records imprint.

Spedding made no bones about his dislike for lengthy, indulgent guitar solos and his dislike for the usage of effects, preferring to shape his work using only the volume and tone controls of his guitar and amplifier. He wanted to cut the kind of three-minute singles that he cherished as a youth and informed Melody Maker readers that “I want my records to be well made, very commercial and in lots of people’s front rooms.” It was in this fashion that the guitarist recorded the tracks found on this four disc, fifty track, collection.

Spedding’s debut, self-titled RAK LP was released in April 1976. With the help of legendary producer Mickie Most, the guitarist recorded the self-penned “Motor Bikin’” with bassist Dave Cochran and drummer Barry Morgan. The tune, with its roaring guitar and nicely echoed vocals was released as a single backed by “Working For The Union” with its Chuck Berry influenced intro and climbing, yet restrained solo, the 45 being his biggest hit, reaching #14 on the UK charts and #20 in Germany, with both sides included on the album. The remainder of the album was recorded with Les Hurdle on bass and Brian Bennett (of The Shadows) or Tony Carr on drums. True to his word, “Chris Spedding” includes eleven tracks, eight of which are under three minutes in length, with “Guitar Jamboree” his tribute to guitar greats such as Hendrix, Clapton, Keith Richard, David Gilmour and Leslie West, among others, being the longest at a bit over four minutes. In following with his goal, four singles were released from the LP, and the three non-LP b-sides are added to this set as bonus tracks for good measure. Virtually every song on the album is worthy of release as a single, all quite tastefully commercial and accessible. The LP’s opening track, “New Girl In The Neighborhood” with its then yet to be formally recognized punk influence helped lay the groundwork for future bands such as The Sex Pistols and The Clash, while still retaining the clean, crisp guitar sound Spedding promised. “Jump In My Car” another single taken from the album gives off a Ziggy Stardust vibe with Spedding’s vocals sounding much akin to Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. Despite the spate of singles and quality of tunes contained on it the album failed to make the UK top 50, despite being most deserving.

Spedding’s second RAK album “Hurt” was released in September, 1977. A potential single, “Lone Rider” was recorded by an incarnation of the Chris Spedding Band with Simon Nicol on guitar, Pat Donaldson on bass and Tim Donald on drums. The tune, included on the LP, was passed over for release as a 45 and this incarnation of the group disbanded shortly after recording the track. The guitarist’s punk sensibilities are reflected in the single “Pogo Dancing” c/w “The Pose” recorded with The Vibrators, who Spedding help attain a contract with RAK, and the two sides are included as bonus tracks on this release. The tunes on “Hurt” are longer in duration, while still retaining a commercial feel. Recorded with legendary session players Clem Cattini on drums, Herbie Flowers on bass and Ray Cooper on percussion, the first single released from “Hurt” combined “Get Outta My Pagoda” with its heavy guitar riff and the non-LP b-side “Hey Miss Betty” a snappy, hot rocking number included as a bonus track. The album’s other single “Silver Bullet” c/w “Wild Wild Women” again displays Spedding’s crisp guitar work on short, snappy rockers. Another standout track from the album is the cover of Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” with Spedding’s rumbling guitar remaining true to the original. “Hurt” also includes “Ain’t Superstitious” co-written by Spedding and former Sharks bandmate Snips, and features the rumbling bass of Flowers and driving drums from Cattini.

“Guitar Grafitti” released in March of 1979, was preceded by an April 1978 single coupling “Bored Bored” and “Time Warp,” produced by Spedding, both sides being included on the album. The former is a mid-tempo rocker reminiscent of “Ziggy Stardust” and featuring ringing guitars while the latter features beautiful guitar tones and waves of feedback with vocals that bring Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to mind. A second pre-LP single features the instrumental “Gunfight” which opens with a Roy Orbinesque guitar intro and flamenco interludes before settling into a Shadows groove, coupled with “Evil” a Dire Straits style rocker with guitars soaring and roaring and a snappy rhythm. Both sides of the 45 are included as bonus material. The album includes contributions from Mick Oliver on rhythm guitar, Steve Currey on bass, Dave Lutton and Tony Newmark on bass and Ray Cooper on percussion. The album was immediately preceded by a third single featuring “Video Life” a mid-tempo rocker with chiming, tremolo guitar work and the heavy rocking instrumental “Frontal Lobotomy” which for my money is the album’s standout track with Curry’s bass thundering and Spedding’s guitar roaring throughout. “Guitar Grafitti” differs greatly from the previous albums with Spedding reluctantly including extended solos on side two of the LP. Thus, three tracks “Hey Miss Betty,” “More Lobotomy (Parts 1 and 2)” and “Breakout” stand in stark contrast to the rest of the album. Spedding went through his live recordings of the band, extracted the solos, and edited them into the three songs, which while not particularly to the liking of the guitarist, makes for some very exciting listening.

The fourth and final album Spedding recorded for RAK was the November 1980 release “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” After a two year sabbatical, part of which was spent working with Joan Armatrading on her “Me, Myself, I” album, Spedding finally entered the studio to record for himself, this time accompanied by Dave Mattacks on drums, Paul Westwood on bass, Phil Lanzon on piano, Chris Mercer on sax, and cellists Chris Green and Pete Wilson. The album was preceded by a single combining a cover of Dave Berry’s “The Crying Game” a down tempo, bluesy number with gorgeous guitar tones and the upbeat, percussion filled “Counterfeit” reminiscent of Roxy Music. The title track, a Kinks cover, opens the album with chugging guitars and gorgeous vocals. It was also released as a single, with the mid-tempo “Contract” featuring incredible slide work by Spedding as the b-side. The album features an up tempo, Ziggyesque “Depravitie” with its roaring guitars and gorgeous vocal harmonies, “I Got A Feeling” a snappy rocker with its chugging, climbing guitars, and “Musical Press” with its upbeat guitar intro, pleasant Bryan Ferry feel and exquisite tempo changes. The album and box set close with “Mama Coca” a tribute to the drug of the day, with its heavy guitar riff, pounding drums, a gorgeous solo by Spedding and some incredible slide work as well.

Sadly, this was to be Spedding’s final recording for RAK. While his work with the label may not have sold in large numbers, it is a fine body of work, proof positive of his abilities as both a great guitarist and fine songwriter. Many thanks to the folks at Cherry Red Records, UK for making this box set available. The four discs are housed in cardboard mini-LP sleeves, tucked into a turtle shell box, and accompanied by a 20-page full color booklet with liner notes by Phil Hendriks, lots of gorgeous photos, and a fine mastering job on the sound by James Bragg. “The RAK Years” stands as an excellent documentation of the incredible session guitarists’ solo efforts and certainly deserves a spot in the collection of all guitar rock enthusiasts.

- Kevin Rathert
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