Brand new to me but a staggering forty five years old Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera’s eponymous album is enjoying a re-release on Grapefruit Records and it’s a really entertaining listen indeed.
Starting out as an R&B/Soul band called the Five Proud Walkers, EGVO took a pretty dramatic change in direction in 1967 after supporting Pink Floyd at a gig on the legendary Eel Pie Island in London. They seemingly got a good deal of airplay but failed to transfer this into record sales.
The intro track comes in as one minute of full on R&B showcasing the individual band members’ proficiency on their instruments and is highly danceable (Not at all what I was expecting) before launching into “Mother Writes” which tells the tale of the contents of a letter written to an absent son. It’s another fast paced track with some really great bass guitar playing and is a million miles from what I expected from a band labelled as psychedelic. “Mary Jane”, eventually banned from the BBC’s playlist for some reason, is more like what you’d expect and is whimsical, full of hooks and if I’m honest a little cheesy and full of naïve hipster clichés about smoking dope. It’s of its time and needs to be taken in that context, but it is fun and it is irritatingly very catchy indeed.
“I Was Cool” has a more bluesy feel to it with wonderfully unhinged lyric and vocal delivery underpinned by bluesy piano backdrop… and then comes up “Walter Sly Meets Bill Bailey” a predominantly instrumental freak-out that launches into a “Knees up Mother Brown” distorted vocal half way through which really throws you… but no need to worry your back with into the freak-out after not too long.
“Air” is sitar tinged and reminiscent of Traffic’s “Hole in My Shoe” and really, to my mind is the weakest tune on offer here but still pretty amusing. In fact, this and the next tune represent the albums weakest points and the cacophonic ending to “Looking for a Happy Life” are a blessed release… but keep on listening and you’re rewarded by the utterly wonderful “Flames” which is straight up R&B and clearly the tune that should have been a hit single – it was and Led Zeppelin covered it.
“Dream Starts” is mental with its vocal that sounds like it’s been put through a Leslie speaker, kazoo and spaghetti western horns – needless to say the band are trying to recreate the feeling of an acid trip and it’s a really cool tune.
There are thirteen tunes on the original album and most come in at around the three minute mark which clearly put this record’s contents in the psych-pop bracket, but it’s all good clean fun and pretty eclectic so dig out your satin shirt with the inevitable pinhole burns, don your loon pants, put on your rose tinted shades and tune in. It’s also a very English record!
But that’s not all folks – you get another eleven tracks including single versions of “Flames”, Mary Jane, “Salisbury Plain”, the blissed out “Dreamy “ (a land where apparently “pumpkin is king”) and Volcano which is a fab’ bit of R&B…as is “A Quick “B””, though the latter has some impressive guitar solo work which really lifts it. “Talk of the Devil” was used in a short film released in 1967 and is the most truly psychedelic of all the tunes on here.
Worth having in your collection when you want to recreate the swinging late sixties in your own home! It may not have done very well back in the day but to ears that are more accustomed to the weird and the wonderful sounds that have emerged over the years it still stands as testament to a youthful time more naïve and none the worse for it!