BACKBEAT

BACKBEAT

BY CHRIS BOURKE

 

Lenny Bruce used to say “there’s nothing sadder than an aging hipster”. So you won’t catch me in a backwards baseball cap, and with these legs long shorts tend to scrape the ground. But there’s another look that’s just as tragic: hippies in winter. Think not of tanned flower children in Golden Gate Park, or that welcome shower cooling the pilgrims at the Gathering. Think Withnail and I; recall the malnourished Hep-B carriers in the video Stones in the Park; or the haunted, bad-acid freaks of Altamont in Gimme Shelter.

 

Okay, it was the height of London’s summer of 1969 when two famous concerts took place at Hyde Park. But there were certainly dark undercurrents present, and clouds on the horizon. Here was the Rolling Stones, unveiling their new guitarist Mick Taylor, days after Brian Jones had been found floating face down in his swimming pool. And Eric Clapton, unveiling his new band Blind Faith. With Cream curdled, he formed the first “supergroup”, months before Crosby Stills Grabbit & Run at Woodstock. Actually, it was an accident: only Stevie Winwood was invited, the blues boy-wonder who belted out ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ for the Spencer Davis Group, then wowed the pop audience with the Traffic hits ‘Paper Sun’ and ‘Hole in My Shoe’. But Ginger Baker turned up, set up his drum kit and stayed – bringing post-Cream ambitions with him. Similarly starry-eyed was Rick Grech of Family, recruited on bass (and violin) to relieve Winwood from playing the bass pedals on his Hammond organ.

 

It should have been a match made in heaven, and for five songs it was. Stung by criticism of the cliches and indulgence of Cream, inspired by the subtleties of the Band’s Music From Big Pink, Clapton started to craft songs rather than let his fingers do the talking on blues standards. With George Harrison he wrote the Cream-lite hit ‘Badge’. In Clapton’s garden that spring, Harrison wrote the rejuvenating summer-of-69 song ‘Here Comes the Sun’. In the living room, Blind Faith was combining blues-rock with prog-rock, even stumbling into fusion when they ran out of words.

 

Blind Faith existed for less than a year, most of that in rehearsal. Their one eponymous album was rush-released for their one, desultory, over-hyped and over-priced tour of America. It had only six tracks, and of those one was a 15-minute groove led by Ginger Baker. Now, a sumptuous deluxe edition of that album has been released by Polydor, with four extra tracks and five jam sessions. Gorgeous as it is – though the rare photos are out of register – this double set only confirms what a brief flash of creativity the band enjoyed. Winwood and Clapton brought the best out in each other; the youngster’s extraordinary Ray Charles blues-belter voice inspired committed, focused playing from Clapton and one of his best songs, ‘Presence of the Lord’. But it is Winwood’s own ‘Had to Cry Today’ and ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ that stand up best, and a loving, gentle version of Buddy Holly’s ‘Well Alright’. ‘Had to Cry Today’ sees Clapton duelling with himself, his descending guitar riff and emphatic chords behaving like a Bach fugue, continually returning to its statement, repetition and development, a blues-rock theme and variations. And Winwood’s powerful teenage diaphragm is used to maximum effect on this dynamic epic. His sensitivity is revealed on the beautifully arranged ‘Sea of Joy’ and the exquisite ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’. It’s good to hear an extra electric version of the latter, and the rare blues ‘Sleeping in the Ground’. But really the jam sessions that make up the rest of this 2-CD set are redundant, stoned bootleg fodder that remind you that even great musicians need some structure to work with.

 

The “Almost Famous” era was underway: hairy, unwashed B-grade hard rock bands criss-crossed the clubs and “sheds” of middle America. Think Spinal Tap, Bad Company articles in Creem and Mott the Hoople leader Ian Hunter’s classic Diary of a Rock and Roll Star. The pinnacle of that era is epitomised by another release in Polydor’s Deluxe Edition series: the 25th anniversary issue of Frampton Comes Alive.

 

Peter Frampton, the pretty boy of Britain’s pop-rock scene (voted “Face of 68” with teen-band Herd), had done his time on tour buses and planes from Buddy Holly Airlines. They ignored him back home but the Midwest and California loved him. His band looked like moustachioed crims, but with his even features, good teeth, flowing locks – and his perfect buns squeezed into white-satin flares – Frampton was the ultimate G-certificate teen idol. Frampton Comes Alive wasn’t the first live double, but it threatened fossil fuels with sales of 12 million. His gooey hits reeked of pubescent foreplay: ‘Show Me the Way’, ‘Baby, I Love Your Way’ and, for a climax, the 14-minute ‘Do You Feel Like We Do’. Yes we do! cried the girls on shoulders waving their lighters in the air.

 

And then there was the voice-box gimmick, the wah-wah of the larynx. Also inflicted on an innocent world by Jeff Beck and – let’s not forget, Ian Morris in Th’ Dudes – the voice-box enthralled the Dazed and Confused generation but a year later was as dated as a pet rock. Which, on reflection, describes Frampton. After his disastrous, satin-uniformed appearance in the Sgt Pepper film, he disappeared until his cameo in Almost Famous. (Teenage critic Cameron Crowe wrote the original FCA liner notes.)

 

Between Blind Faith and Peter Frampton, rock became a  corporate industry, thanks to people like the man who provides a link in their stories. Robert Stigwood managed both acts: his greed killed Blind Faith before they got off the ground, and made Peter Frampton unwanted by a weary public. In 1967, Epstein wanted to give the Beatles to Stigwood to manage; they threatened to keep recording ‘God Save the Queen’ till their contract ran out. By 1977, a snot-faced London-Irish kid was scheming with his own greedy manager – but that’s another story.