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I’m A Freak Baby
Various Joe Banks , August 4th, 2016 18:58

The story of rock music’s evolution from 50s blues and country to the sonic pomp and lyrical pageantry of the 1970s is often told in terms of a growing sophistication, of a genre moving beyond its initial teenage pop audience and showing itself worthy of serious critical consideration. But perhaps more pertinently it’s also a journey into noise, one that constantly pushes at the limits of acceptability and makes a bid for transcendence through a combination of raw power and wilful experimentation. I’m A Freak Baby: A Journey Through The British Heavy Psych And Hard Rock Underground Scene 1968-1972 dives down into the chaotic loam of the late 60s/early 70s UK rock underground and unearths a secret history of bands committed to the righteous cause of making an infernal racket.

As the excellent sleeve notes to this weighty three CD compilation makes clear, many critics were mystified, even dismayed, by the very existence of the harder, louder, gloomier strain of music that emerged out of Britain’s psychedelic and blues rock scenes. But they shouldn’t have been so surprised – much of the Utopian rhetoric of the hippy era had evaporated by the turn of the 70s, and a general sense of heaviness had descended on the country. Both cheap recreational drugs and the first Black Sabbath album had reached the provinces, while improved amplification and basic effects pedals were now readily available to all. And while it might be pushing it a bit to describe the music here as the authentic voice of working class anomie, there’s a sense of existential horror in many of these tracks, or at the very least an impatience with the love and peace trappings of a few years previous.

I’m A Freak Baby… covers those years when music was undergoing a series of seismic upheavals, with rock morphing into new shapes and forms. While it features some of the progenitors of these changes such as The Yardbirds and Fleetwood Mac, plus early rock notables such as Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, the really interesting stuff here is from those groups that barely scraped out an album before disappearing into obscurity or never even got to release a record at the time, many of them victims of being outside of what was still largely a London-centric scene.

Take, for instance, Iron Claw from Dumfries – ‘Skullcrusher’ from 1970 is an astonishing mix of brutal, sludgy riffs and woken-from-a-nightmare vocals that must have sounded utterly, yes, skullcrushing at the time. They sent their demo tape to Sabbath in the hope of gaining some recognition from their heroes, only to be threatened by legal action from the band’s management. Other bands supping from the dark chalice of Aston’s finest include Northampton’s Wicked Lady – who also throw Hawkwind into the mix on the heads-down grind of ‘I’m A Freak’ (giving the compilation its title) – and Jerusalem from Salisbury, who at least manged to get an album out under the patronage of Ian Gillan – the throat-shredding verses of ‘Primitive Man’ could be from an 80s noise rock record.

But Sabbath weren’t the only game in town for aspiring freaks. One of the rawest but most exciting recordings here is Egor’s ‘Street’, which takes the heavy boogie template of Status Quo and pummels it into submission before a change in tempo pushes the song in an unexpectedly expansive direction. The Velvet Frogs’ ‘Jehovah’ is an intense piece of Stonesy doom psych, while ‘Yellow Cave Woman’ from near-namesakes Velvett Fogg is queasily hypnotic, like The Doors forced to play at gunpoint. Perhaps strangest of all is Sweet Slag’s ‘Twisted Trip Woman’ (you may be spotting a theme here), a driving, nervy blues that suddenly heads into jazz odyssey territory, but actually pulls it off.

I’m A Freak Baby… also highlights many of those groups that were popular and relatively successful at the time, but haven’t made it onto the canonical radar. Chief among these is the mighty Groundhogs, their unique brand of hard progressive blues showcased here via the classic twisting stomp of ‘Cherry Red’, which they even got to perform on Top Of The Pops. Stray are another band that produced a series of great albums during the 70s, but remain unsung – the wide-eyed propulsive psych of ‘All In Your Mind’ kicks off this comp in definitive style. And similarly under-appreciated are the Edgar Broughton Band, who mixed Captain Beefheart-inspired freak-outs with serious pop nous – ‘Love In The Rain’ is a particularly manic example of their muse. In an alternative rock universe, it’s not the holy triumvirate of Paranoid, In Rock and Led Zeppelin IV that holds sway, but Split, Stray and Wasa Wasa.

Perhaps most importantly, this compilation emphasises once and for all that UK punk wasn’t some sui generis outpouring of nihilism and angst – the seeds of the no future generation are right here. But while punk was musically backward-looking, what sets many of the groups apart here is an ambition to push things further. The playing may sometimes be rudimentary, but the impulse to explore is just as strong as the urge to bludgeon. Contrary to received wisdom, 1968-1972 is one of the most fertile periods of music history, being a time before generic constrictions began to take a grip on rock’s windpipe, and that in itself makes I’m A Freak Baby… a vital reminder that noise and innovation often go hand in hand.