Gary Farr’s ‘Don’t Know Why You Bother Child’ is one of the most seductively melancholy of recordings. Its sentiments seem cynical yet it comes on like a welcoming embrace full of unsaid things. It is magical, from the opening acoustic 12-string ringing out, with Ian Whiteman’s flute joining in delicately, followed by Roger Powell’s drums, like menacing thunder just for an instant, then Gary’s exquisite crooning sounds so wonderfully jaded as he sings about how this old world won’t change because you’re trying, over and over, at times accompanied by a divine soul choir.
A long time ago now, oh probably back in the late 1980s, Reggie King was asked whom he really rated from when The Action were around, and his immediate response was “Gary Farr”, followed by a pensive pause and then: “Yeah, Gary Farr, definitely”. It was neither an answer that was expected nor wanted. There have, however, been moments since, after happy times spent listening to Gary singing ‘Don’t Know Why You Bother Child’, when it would be very easy to agree with Reggie’s assertion.
Originally recorded back in 1969, ‘Don’t Know Why You Bother Child’ wasn’t heard here until the excellent Andres Lokko Folk 2CD compilation, an overview of British folk rock, came out in 2005, and God bless the day that turned up in the post. Do you know it? It’s part of a Swedish series of Feber collections which includes a couple put together by Andres, who is one of the good guys with an amazing appetite and genuine enthusiasm for all sorts of great sounds. He possesses an incredible amount of knowledge about so much musical activity without ever being an irritating specialist, which is how it should be.
The Folk set followed Andres’ Northern and Modern Soul 2CD selection, which came with a great if gloriously illogical cover photo of the Crewkerne Freezer Centre that, if you were seeing it for the first time now, you might think was going to be the next B. Stanley & P. Wiggs compilation on Ace. This Soul set is terrific stuff and has been one of the most consistently played collections here for many years now, featuring beloved things like Bettye Swann’s ‘Kiss My Love Goodbye’, Nolan Porter’s ‘If I Could Only Be Sure’, the Soul Brothers Six’s ‘I’ll Be Loving You’, Eddy Giles’ ‘Losin’ Boy’, and best of all ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’ by the Kelly Brothers.
The similarly superb Folk set works as an accompaniment to Rob Young’s Electric Eden, though it’s easy to forget that was published half-a-dozen years later, and Andres’ compilation came out before a lot of this stuff was reissued on CD, so the excitement, the intoxicating sense of hearing so many new things, was quite something. Immediately, though, the Gary Farr track stood out, for it seemed to be coming from a different place: it had at least a sense of danger and dissent about it, and sounded more alive somehow, which was welcome among so many minstrel boys with sensitive souls.
In a way the Gary Farr track seemed to be in thrall to Tim Buckley, and it is easy to imagine that at the time he was listening to Goodbye and Hello and Happy Sad, alongside Tim Hardin, David Ackles, Richie Havens, and Fred Neil’s Capitol LP with ‘Dolphins’ on: “This old world may never change the way it’s been”. Ah, that similarity can’t be just coincidence can it? And Tim Buckley sang ‘Dolphins’ during that Dream Letter concert, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in October 1968, and it’s lovely to imagine Gary spellbound, sitting there on the edge of his seat, taking it all in. Why wouldn’t you?
Norman Jopling’s entertaining music press memoir Shake It Up Baby! has so many enchanting moments, understandably as he’s uniquely placed to document as an eyewitness, and it’s wonderful how it gives more space to Goldie & the Gingerbreads and Reparata & the Delrons than Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. It also gives a sense of how big a deal Tim Buckley was in 1968, and it is glorious to learn that Norman’s close friend Peter Meaden loved ‘Morning Glory’ so much. It certainly is a great book for finding out more about what are incredibly important figures here, like Peter, like Dave Godin, like Guy Stevens.
It would be a few more years before any further Gary Farr work was heard here, when Sunbeam reissued Take Something With You, the LP he made for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label in 1969 with a small circle of friends. There is a sense he plays his ace card right at the start with ‘Don’t Know Why You Bother Child’, but it’s a fine record, and highlights include the title track and ‘Green’, plus the Beefheart-clatter of ‘Dustbin’ which serves as a reminder of when Gary acted as a roadie for the Captain and his Magic Band at Cannes back when the London in-crowd was turned onto Safe As Milk by the evangelical Peter Meaden. And the closing track ‘Goodbye’ is gloriously unsettling, in a valedictory, intense “please go away and leave me alone, times are changing, things are ending, and I’m able to see through you all” kind-of-blue way, with just Gary and his booming 12-string, and rather more David Ackles than Tim Buckley this time around.
What is instantly striking about Take Something With You is its gorgeous cover, a sort of sepia toned portrait shot of Gary scowling, with lowering brows, very moody and magnificent. He looks a devastatingly handsome devil, stylistically a little like Adam Faith as Budgie or a young Tony Currie at Sheffield United, or even (an all-time hero here) Billy Bonds in his prime: maybe he and Gary would have bonded over a mutual love of Thomas Hardy? But that was all later on.
The back-cover credits particularly thank Reggie King who produced the LP, and he seems to have done a painstaking job. After leaving The Action to it, as the guitar solos got longer and longer (what’s a singer supposed to do? Sit with a glass of wine and a book of poetry while they drone on?), he was asked by Giorgio Gomelsky to do some production work for his Marmalade set-up, and was at the controls for Gary’s LP, as well as the Blossom Toes’ If Only for a Moment and Chris Barber’s Battersea Rain Dance, maybe more.
There is a wonderful photo of Reggie and Gary, with their acoustic guitars in the sunshine, somewhere on a balcony, and they’re dressed in white sweatshirts and look like blond brothers, a kind of odd British distortion of the cover of Marcos Valle’s Mustang Côr De Sangue. It is such a beautiful snap, and is something of an obsession here. It may appear elsewhere but pertinently it comes with the 2012 release of Reggie’s late 1960s demos, published as Looking For A Dream by Circle after diligent salvage and restoration work by the label’s Peter Wild. In many ways these demos complement Gary’s Marmalade LP, and were presumably put together around the same time with very similar personnel from the extended Action and Blossom Toes community.
These demos of Reggie’s are ridiculously wonderful, and given where The Action were heading it is a relief that they are largely acoustic, with Ian Whiteman’s flute playing being a key feature, rather like Hermeto Pascoal was doing with Edu Lobo around the same time. And then there’s Astral Weeks: would Reggie and Gary have been listening to that? It seems likely. But there is a huge difference in that Van’s record was produced almost by chance, in that the musicians were left to do their own thing, while Reggie and Gary it seems worked diligently on arrangements, right down to the fine details.
There is that odd dichotomy in the way this meticulousness was married to a seeming nonchalance about the finished material. The songs and performances that form Reggie’s demos are of an astonishingly high quality but their creator did not seem to have a masterplan about what to do with them. Was this arrogance, casualness, or did it really hurt deep down inside when the world didn’t seem to take any notice? It’s like that old Billy Vera quote in the Jackie Paris film about how it’s hard to stay nice when everyone tells you you’re great but nobody seems to do anything about it, so you sit there and watch lesser lights and one-time bit-part players making it big: how do you feel?
After his first LP came out Gary apparently did say goodbye to London and moved down to the relative tranquility of Caterham in the Surrey countryside working on new songs. We know this from Meic Stevens’ notes of those times which talk about his involvement with Gary. Meic himself bailed out, and Richard Thompson took his place on lead guitar, recording with the dependable team of Mighty Baby’s Roger Powell, Mike Evans and Ian Whiteman, with some subtle string arrangements from a young Mike Batt.
As can be heard, by this time country rock was all the rage, and Mighty Baby were big converts to the sound. There’s a great Martin Stone quote, reproduced in Electric Eden, about the impact The Byrds with Gram Parsons had when they played at Middle Earth in May 1968 which appropriately mentions Richard Thompson wandering around agog. That show is another milestone Norman Jopling shrewdly mentions in his book.
Gary’s new LP, released at the end of 1970, was Strange Fruit, with the title track being a brooding and disturbingly stark folk rendition of the Billie Holiday song which was quite a statement. The LP features a central suite of four songs which on some days can seem as good as anything. The first two of these, the very poetic and philosophical ‘Revolution of the Season’ and ‘About This Time of Year’, show the Mighty Baby guys at their best, and the songs flow with the ease and force of a crystal clear rushing mountain stream, and are not far removed from parts of the Velvets’ contemporaneous Loaded.
And this is where the rhythm section of Mike Evans and Roger Powell had the ascendancy over their American counterparts, many of whom came from a folk background while these guys had played together for years, evolving out of soul and rhythm & blues into West Coast rock and beyond. It was the hypnotic weightless groove they could create which continues to amaze, and with Richard Thompson soaring (like a bluebird) over it all these songs are a joy, and one doubts Richard had as much fun again until he became one of David Thomas’ Pedestrians.
The other two numbers of note are the strikingly sombre bruised ballads, ‘Down Among the Dead Men’ and ‘Proverbs of Heaven and Hell’, which are magnificently unsettling, and seem to be full of dramatic biblical imagery, echoing a soul’s unrest. They are not easy listens, but they are incredibly moving, and Ian Whiteman’s portentous piano at the start of ‘Proverbs’ is wonderful, and a little reminiscent of the end of ‘Knowledge of Beauty’ and a little David Ackles again, perhaps. It is tempting to wonder if these songs haunted Richard and were there at the back of his mind when he wrote ‘Down Where the Drunkards Roll’ and ‘Withered and Died’, consciously or not.
Before Strange Fruit was recorded, back on 27 February 1970, Gary, with his old friend and comrade Kevin Westlake, had played at the New Day event at the Roundhouse in London, part of a series of Implosion concerts put on by Jeff Dexter, Caroline Coon and co. The show was the idea of Peter Swales who had been part of Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade set-up before being recruited by the Rolling Stones, a role which provided him with resources to start his Sahara organisation. His concept for the extravaganza was based around ‘New Day’, a rapturous Blossom Toes song written by Brian Godding.
There is floating around on compilations the Blossom Toes’ original recording of this song, with Julie Driscoll and Reggie King on backing vocals. Julie herself topped the bill that night, and the climax of the show was a rendition of ‘New Day’ featuring a cast of thousands singing along, to symbolise the beginning of a new age. There is an anonymous review of the concert in the online archives of International Times which has become something of an obsession here and it captures the event perfectly.
A few days after the concert a studio recording of ‘New Day’ was made with the Combined Forces Network Choir featuring a host of friends and scenesters. This astonishing performance closes the B.B. Blunder Workers’ Playtime LP in quite remarkable fashion. This was Brian Godding and Brian Belshaw from Blossom Toes together with old colleague Kevin Westlake, and the LP itself features a handful of fantastic Brian Godding compositions, each with strong vocal support from their friend Julie Driscoll who was an honorary member of the band and appears disguised on the cover.
The B.B. Blunder songs, ‘You’re So Young’ and ‘Seed’ are, like ‘New Day’, exceptional ultra-emotional ballads which build and build to astonishing climaxes, and on these Brian Godding emerged belatedly, briefly, as an incredible blue-eyed soul singer who could outdo Stevie Marriott and Stevie Winwood. Workers’ Playtime was one of three 1971 LP releases on United Artists, part of a deal Peter Swales had negotiated for his Sahara acts.
The new name among the trio was Gypsy who had a big tough pop sound, seemingly very much shaped by Buffalo Springfield, Byrds and The Band, with an impressive wall of guitars ringing out and sweet harmonies singing out. Their 1971 debut LP is a real classic, and has become very much a favourite here. The nameless reviewer of the New Day concert was very much charmed by Gypsy, and suggested there were similarities with The Action of old, and arguably part of Gypsy’s strength came from their roots playing soul-inspired sets around the East Midlands.
The Gypsy LP appropriately features a couple of really deep, very emotional blue-eyed soul ballads, with strong West Coast folk rock colouration, especially the exceptional ‘Keep On Trying’. And the associated single, ‘Changes Coming’, had a hard-nut footstompin’ thing going on, to give Slade a run for their money, while echoing the new optimism / new decade feel of the anthem of that little circle of friends, ‘New Day’.
Closely related to the B.B. Blunder record was the Reg King LP, with Reggie being the third Sahara act signed to United Artists. Back in the late 1980s, again, a young man was browsing in the Rock On shop next to Camden Town tube station (or was there a chip shop in-between?), the home of Ace and Big Beat, with lots of Cramps and Milkshakes paraphernalia, the only customer at the time, when the older guy behind the counter asks if there’s anything in particular he was looking for. “The solo Reggie King LP,” was the response and the chap behind the counter looked like he’d seen a ghost. “Blimey, I haven’t seen a copy of that in years,” he said, then went on to add that it was a strange LP, and that it wasn’t mixed all that well, before saying: “I used to play in a band with Reggie a long time ago, you know. Bam I used to be known as back then”. You couldn’t make it up.
It is a strange LP. Bam was right. It would be the best part of 20 years later that Circle released Reg King on CD, and it continues to hold an odd and perhaps fatal fascination. What can you say? There is a line in Sebald’s The Emigrants about Ambros Adelwarth: “He was at once saving himself, in some way, and mercilessly destroying himself”. That sounds about right. Speaking of that book, maybe someone will publish Sebald’s notes from when, looking for solace, he stumbled into the Twisted Wheel one night shortly after his arrival in Manchester, late on in 1966, and witnessed The Action onstage, back when, according to the anonymous but clued-up IT writer, they were “the most compulsively together people's band (the people being the kids who filled provincial ballrooms in their mohair suits and Levi’s, pilled out of their heads and bopping to ‘First I Look at the Purse’ and ‘Mine Exclusively’).
It would not be until 2004 that many of us would get to hear The Action performing ‘Mine Exclusively’ on a magical Circle CD collection of the group’s BBC recordings. On that The Action sound so natural doing The Olympics’ Mirwood classic, so it’s unsettling hearing Reggie on his solo LP with his voice straining, rather than his usual way of singing, with such ease, but there he is, howling and hollering, as if fighting his way out of the wall of noise he created, the concrete all around him, so perhaps it’s an act of nihilism: “Excuse me while I disappear”.
Even on the cover he looks bored with the whole circus or horror show, which he probably was. But it’s hard not to become obsessed with a song as emotionally-involving as ‘You Go Have Yourself A Good Time’, which in many ways is the perfect partner to Gary’s ‘Don’t Know Why You Bother Child’ and ‘Goodbye’ in terms of jaded weariness, with all that stuff about not being in a people kind of mood and his mind being in a peculiar shape. Who hasn’t felt that way? But it’s the regal disdain with which Reggie dismisses his companion that is most striking. You can just picture it somehow.
Throughout the LP the accompaniment from the extended Mighty Baby and B.B. Blunder circle of friends (including Bam, unusually, for he rarely played on other people’s records) is quite something, basically a right old racket at times, gloriously so, though the personal favourite here is ‘Down The Drain’ because it comes closest to being what one wanted or expected Reggie’s record to sound like, which is something jazzier, closer to Mark Murphy or Terry Callier, that sort of thing. And this is such a great track, with the ineffably sad line: “A phone call to a loser’s just money down the drain”.
Here he is backed by former members of the band Breakthru with some great horns from Paul Nieman, who worked with Mike Westbrook on his dramatic Metropolis LP around the same time, and George Barker who was playing with J.J. Jackson’s Dilemma around then doing much the same sort of thing. Actually that J.J. Jackson Dilemma LP is pretty incredible, and in its way as bold as anything around at that time.
J.J. had made England his home, and he could have been forgiven for trading on his soul credentials and playing the hits in those provincial ballrooms, especially with the advent of the rare soul scene, at the Twisted Wheel and elsewhere. But, instead, he recruited a group that fused wild soul, fairly free jazz and progressive underground pop sounds in one mad mix, resulting in a couple of crazy LPs, the first of which featured superb biting renditions of Chicago’s ‘Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?’ and Larry Weiss’ ‘Bow Down (to the Dollar)’.
There was overlap between J.J. Jackson’s Dilemma and the band If, who recorded for Island, with Dick Morrissey, Dave Quincy and (Scott Walker’s mate) Terry Smith being in both outfits. There were similarities in sound too, understandably, and while the first If records contain some fantastic playing the mind whirls at the possibility of them backing Reggie King on a whole LP at the start of the 1970s. He would have been the singer and songwriter they were crying out for. He was so good he could just abandon all those demos he had worked on so assiduously in 1969, though he did return to a couple of songs from the final days of The Action for his solo LP.
All those songs going to waste, seemingly casually cast aside: “You didn’t want to listen then, when I was trying to be heard, so now take this.” What we get is a 12-minute meltdown called ‘Savannah’ and it is brutal, with the Stones’ Mick Taylor on guitar, like The Yardbirds getting into bed with Ligeti in the smoking rubble of Swinging London. It’s very Wilko Johnson-like at times, so it’s no wonder Reggie had an enduring interest in Dr Feelgood. Much later, when talking about the end of The Action, Martin Stone recalls Reggie’s antics and asks: “Where was he when punk happened?” Well, the answer to that is that he was probably not in a good place.
Gary Farr at least got out before the pervading madness caught up with him. He travelled far and wide, and had the good fortune to charm Jerry Wexler, get himself signed to Atlantic in 1973 and taken down to Muscle Shoals Sound studios to record an LP with Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins and the gang. This record, Addressed to the Censors of Love, is one that has become a recent obsession, with more than half of it made up of exquisite haunting songs, recorded in a beautifully understated way with odd occasional Latin touches.
Ah, who can explain the eternal attraction of a flawed work? Beyond the love songs (which were a new departure for Gary), on the other tracks, there’s a bit of the ‘Sweet Surrender’-era Tim Buckley and there’s the cast-iron talking-blues rockers that tend to the Dylan-esque stream-of-consciousness approach with pop culture references galore, from Kerouac and Ginsberg, to Isaac Hayes and Sugar Pie Desanto, and on to Joe Louis the Brown Bomber whom Gary’s father fought and nearly beat (many say he did win) back in 1937. And it is oddly endearing that at times Gary sounds more Dylan than Dylan, though the closest reference seems to be Desire which was a still a couple of years away, so work that one out.
But it is on those torch ballads that Gary really shines, and where he oddly seems to sound an awful lot like Paul Weller would do around Wildwood or Stanley Road on those ever-welcome slower soulful numbers: well, at least the ones you hear in your dreams. There’s a sequence of five tracks on the first side of the LP which is pretty unbeatable, starting with ‘Wailing Wall’ and on through to the delightful ‘White Bird’. Best of all is Gary’s serenade ‘General’s Daughter’, an irredeemably romantic song, almost certainly written for his great love Carinthia West, the photographer, whose father really was a General and quite a character, too, according to online snippets.
The song itself, ‘General’s Daughter’, is a poetic flight of fancy, a tough guy getting tender and telling a story of star-crossed lovers fleeing from a vengeful father, which reinforces the impression, long-held here, that Gary should have been born into another age, a larger-than-life character belonging more to the adventurer tradition, Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, all those Daphne Du Maurier novels, someone who could easily have been a pioneer, a pirate, a bandit, a brigand, an outlaw in the prairies of the Wild West, a partisan in the forests of the Nazi-occupied East, a dharma bum, a desolation angel, someone always welcome as a poet and singer of sad songs around a campfire.
It seems Gary’s Addressed to the Censors of Love pretty much disappeared when it was released, and it is hard to even begin to imagine how much that must have hurt, the whole cumulative effect of making three great LPs and finding that practically nobody has even noticed. You really must wonder why you’ve bothered. Privately it would hurt a hell of a lot but, if you’re lucky enough, most days you can put a brave face on things and pretend that you’re doing fine and can even forget about it … for a while.