The Whole Tooth

by Mike Jefferson, for Coffeerooms - Talk about it here

All you need to know about SPOOKY TOOTH, one of rock’s most underrated bands…

And, oh yeah, their singer’s got a new CD out…

If the devil could sing, he’d sound like Mike Harrison.

Harrison has been called “the great lost voice of British rock” and the “white Ray Charles” among other lofty compliments, and his sizeable body of work with Spooky Tooth and as a solo artist bears this out. After 25 years in rock and roll purgatory, Harrison has returned with “Late Starter,” an appropriately named solo CD. Why the delay? Harrison was victimized by possibly the worst manager since the guy who turned down The Beatles. He was also unceremoniously screwed out of his performance royalties, and wound up working a series of nine to five jobs, including a stint as a milkman and a warehouse supervisor.


Spooky Tooth
Harrison began his career as the most recognizable face, voice and personality of underground heavy rockers Spooky Tooth. Harrison cut his teeth listening to Etta James, Sam Cooke, and especially Ray Charles. His own voice was an anomaly. Strong enough to shake walls, it had a dry, three pack a day rasp that was packed with emotion, sincerity and soul. Although the group would never achieve the superstar status it deserved, Spooky Tooth became a rock and roll finishing school for musicians who would become household names in the 70s and 80s. Songwriter/keyboardist/vocalist Gary Wright would make his name as a solo artist, scoring with the singles “Dreamweaver,” “Love is Alive,” and “I Really Wanna Know You” before carving out a second career as George Harrison’s keyboard player and spiritual confidant. Founding bassist Greg Ridley left after “Spooky Two” to become the bassist/vocalist with 70s arena legends Humble Pie. Guitarist Luther Grosvenor played in Stealer’s Wheel (the “Stuck in the Middle With You” group), recorded a solo album, and then was recruited by Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople to take over as lead guitarist. (Hunter thought Grosvenor’s name was unbecoming of a rock star and suggested he change it to Ariel Bender.) Drummer Mike Kellie would go on to play with Peter Frampton, Three Man Army, The Only Ones, and Jim Capaldi, among others. Chris Stainton earned a pension as Joe Cocker’s musical director; guitarist Henry McCullough played with Paul McCartney and Wings; and there was a “mad” keyboard player who played with group in its infancy (when they called the V.I.P.s) named Keith Emerson. Perhaps the most successful musician to graduate from Spooky Tooth’s ranks was guitarist Mick Jones, who founded Foreigner. Ironically the band’s frontman and most talent member, singer/keyboardist Mike Harrison, didn’t reap the benefits of his association. After leaving Spooky Tooth in 1974, Harrison would record his third and best solo album to date, the eclectic “Rainbow Rider,” serve a stint in Stainton’s band then disappear from the music scene.

Spooky Tooth was born out of the rubble of two previous incarnations, psyche purveyors Art and the V.I.P.s, a beat group formed in 1963 by classmates Harrison and Ridley. Immensely popular in France, where they had a #1 record (“I Wanna Be Free”), the V.I.P.s were the featured act at The Star Club in Hamburg. The V.I.P.s didn’t sell many records at home in England, but were a popular live act, performing at The Marquee and Klooks Keek for the likes of Steve Winwood, Tom Jones, and Mick Jagger. A series of well crafted singles went nowhere, and by 1967 the V.I.P.s were losing steam, as well as members. Original members Jim Henshaw, Frank Kenyon and Walter Johnson were replaced by guitarist Luther Grosvenor, and drummer Mike Kellie. Bowing to the times, the V.I.P.s embraced psychedelia, changing their name to Art. As Art, they recorded a lone, mostly group-written album produced by the demented Guy Stevens. Although a worthy representation of hippydom, their label (Island Records) was worried that Harrison and company were no longer a sound investment. While on tour with American support act The New York Tymes, the group was introduced to keyboard player Gary Wright by Island founder Chris Blackwell, who politely suggested that Art, in need of a songwriter, combine their musical talents with Wright. Wright happened to be friends with hot-shot producer Jimmy Miller. To celebrate the union, Art was renamed Spooky Tooth.


Spooky Tooth
Spooky Tooth’s 1968 debut “It’s All About” introduced the dual lead vocals and keyboards of Harrison and Wright. “Spooky Two” went Platinum and the double-barrel rock n’ roll Righteous Brothers vocal attack pushed the band to the brink of superstardom. A seemingly innocent side project, “Ceremony” recorded with balmy French artiste Pierre Henri, was so poorly received it splintered the band. Harrison, Grosvenor and Kellie reclaimed the band’s reputation with the excellent “The Last Puff,” but relentless touring and Harrison’s desire to pursue a solo career ended the group prematurely. Harrison released two solo albums before joining Wright in the reconstituted Spooky Tooth in 1972. A pair of albums in 1973 (“You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw” and “Witness”) returned the group to its former grandeur, but the constant reshuffling of the rhythm section doomed the band. The death knell came when Wright convinced the band to immigrate to America in the hopes of capitalizing on their popularity there. Bassist Chrissie Stewart and Kellie opted out, but more importantly, so did Harrison, taking with him the groups on stage identity. Harrison was replaced by Mike Patto, an underrated talent who came across as a less bombastic Harrison clone. Harrison made another attempt at a solo career, releasing “Rainbow Rider,” on a small label that almost immediately went belly up. His career soon followed, filleted by poor promotion and even poorer decisions.

Discouraged, Mike Harrison’s voice was stilled for the next 25 years.

In 1999, Spooky Tooth was reunited with Harrison, Ridley, Grosvenor and Kellie recording “Cross Purpose.” Although the reunion stagnated, Harrison was once again in demand. He toured with The Hamburg Blues Band, recording “Touch” with them in 2001. A welcome, but brief Spooky Tooth reunion with Wright and Kellie in honor of the late Greg Ridley followed in 2004, but a promised CD of new material never materialized. (A DVD of the concert is finally scheduled to be released in May.) With Wright back in America, Kellie back doing sessions, Grosvenor disinterested and Ridley deceased, Harrison struck out on his own yet again.

In 2006 Spooky Tooth devotee Mike Maslen, the director of Halo Records, persuaded Harrison to sign a recording contact. The agreement was contingent on Harrison having creative control of his sound. Instead of an eclectic song of recognizable covers or original material, Harrison decided to pay homage to the artists that inspired him. It was a gutsy gamble that’s paid off handsomely.


Late Starter (4 out of 5 stars) (2007)

Mike Harrison’s long-awaited return as a solo artist is an enjoyable, mature collection of smoldering blues ballads and mid-tempo rockers that do his gritty voice justice. Harrison is so at ease with the material he sounds as if he could give an emotional reading of the yellow pages.

“Late Starter” was recorded in analog with a minimum of overdubs, which leaves gives the performances a fresh, live feel. The only gripe might be a lack of Spooky Tooth’s patented heavy sound, but Harrison makes it clear from the opening notes that while this isn’t the Tooth, the music is abundantly real.

Harrison has assembled “Trust,” a band of unknowns as his back up band. “Trust” is capable of playing in an understated manner that doesn’t upstage Harrison’s husky stylings. The group is comprised of veteran German musicians Leeman (guitar, vocals), Miscuka (piano, vocals), Hans Wallbaum (drums, vocals), Rietta Austin (vocals), Trotter (bass, harp) and Axel Fuhrmann (organ, vocals).

The CD starts out with the ballad “Out of the Rain,” which has been causing a buzz amongst radio listeners. Simple and unadorned, it features Lee Oskar-like harp by Trotter (apparently he’s so good he only needs one name) and an arrangement that swells to epic proportions along the lines of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”: “Standing at the cross roads could have gone either way. But now I’ve found you and the storm is behind.” Later, Harrison prophetically proclaims, “I’m back on the right track, I’m feeling no pain.”

“A Fool in Love” is a cross between Humble Pie’s slippery version of “Fool For a Pretty Face” and Spooky Tooth’s “Kiss It Better” with a serious dose of swagger: “People say I’m a man of means, but my clothes are full of holes. People say I’m a homely child, but I’m rich down to my soul. Every night when the darkness falls I’ll be there at your beck and call. I’m a fool for you baby. I’m a fool right now.”

Ironically, with “Jealous Kind” Harrison has decided to tackle a tune already assayed by sound-alike Joe Cocker. This is another bluesy ballad that builds on the strength of Leeman’s slide guitar and Miscuka’s Randy Newman nuances on electric piano. (Hey two more guys with single names.)

Leeman does more in a fifteen second guitar solo in the straightforward rocker “I Can Give You Everything” than many axeman can do in a lifetime. (Are you listening, Eric?) “I Can Give You Everything” has Harrison trading vocals with the bountiful Rietta Austin, who plays Bonnie Bramlett to his Delaney. One gets the idea Austin got a shot to shout out in order to spice up live performances. Austin is loud, haughty and certain to attract the eye on stage, but she’s a luxury here that does little to advance the song. Mike can handle it all on his own, thank you, Rietta.

The countrified “Don’t Touch Me” is ill suited for Harrison’s voice and that says more about the song itself than the silver-domed singer. It’s simply a lame C &W ditty, the type of slow dance the D.J. plays at four in the morning when the ugly lights come on. It does have an organ solo that would make Billy Preston give a gap-toothed grin. The solo and momentarily energizes the loping pace, but its country western roots drag down Harrison’s good intentions.

The ballad “You Were Never Mine” plows similar territory, but is more earnest, more attuned to Harrison’s broken vocal. Whatever reservoir of sorrow Harrison has tapped into is put forth in his performance: “I never lost you…You were never mine…”

Harrison sounds very much in his element in the swaying, bluesy “Night Time (Is the Right Time)” This is a tune he undoubtedly sang hundreds of times with The V.I.P.s. The call and response from the background singers is a little listless until Rietta Austin busts in, but the focus is on Harrison, who works out with a soul man’s conviction.

Harrison is in fine voice for “Your Good Thing Is About to End” and there’s an underpinning of Ridley-esque bass from Trotter. It gets a bit sidetracked by a series of studio tricks (the echoed title line) and there’s a nice finger wagging piano solo by Miscuka and orderly acapella singing, but it does overstay its welcome.

The second country-western weeper “The Rock, is a much stronger entry than “Don’t Touch Me”, benefiting from Harrison’s easy going vocals and a strong, self-effacing lyric: “I finally understand if you’re resting on shifting sands, even a rock goes rolling away.”

Harrison pays homage to Ray Charles, one of his more obvious influences, by covering four songs associated with him: “Come Back Baby, “ the superb “Sinner’s Prayer,” “Drown In My Own Tears,” and a swaggering “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” “Come Back Baby” has hints of gospel and features a righteous guitar/organ exchange with Harrison’s throaty pleas convincing on every level. This man knows the blues. “Sinner’s Prayer” has ghostly Muddy Waters slide runs and sinister piano licks with a touch of Dr. John ju ju. Harrison’s a sinner alright – and he testifies with the fervor of a man dancing in hell. “Sinner’s Prayer” is a scary, excellent performance. “Drown in My Own Tears” starts of wobbly, as if Harrison was going under for the last time. As a direct result, it’s the weakest of the Charles tributes, although Harrison rebounds near the end. “Let’s Go Get Stoned” compares favorably to Charles’ definitive performance and Joe Cocker’s live version from “Mad Dogs and Englishman.” Harrison’s version sports unobtrusive sneaky- good guitar asides and a gleeful, lovin’ every minute vocal from the man himself.

An Otis Redding tune, “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” closes out “Late Starter.” Harrison sings with a layer of remorse in his voice -- is he remembering his late good friend Greg Ridley? His first wife? The shambles of his career? Whatever the inspiration, Harrison heartache is honest and entrancing.

The only complain here is in the packaging, which like the music is stark. You do get a nifty now and then effect from having a current picture of Harrison on the front cover and a shot of him in his Spooky Tooth heyday on the back, but there’s little info on the Trust band and no song writing credits. Still, it’s about the music, and “Late Starter” gets better with each listening.

Mike Harrison may have gotten a late start on his solo career, but there’s no reason for you to wait. Track down “Late Starter” now and savor every bluesy bite.


Other Mike Harrison Solo Recordings

Mike Harrison (1st solo album) (3 ½ out of 5 stars) (1971)

“Mike Harrison” offers a seldom seen side of the Tooth’s former lead singer. On his first solo album, Harrison is more of a folk troubadour than a flame-throated rocker. His voice retains its sandy edge, but at the same time the subdued arrangements demand that Harrison expose his soul. Most of the time the emotional bloodletting works; on “Damian” and “Wait Until the Morning” however, Harrison’s overwrought performance teeters on the brink of being off key.

“Mike Harrison” is also singular in that it is one of the few albums to showcase Harrison as a song writer. In Spooky Tooth Harrison shared several sparse songwriting credits (“Here I Lived So Well” from “It’s All About” and “Waiting For the Wind” from Spooky Two), but on his first solo effort Harrison is the co-author of three of the album’s eight songs and also served as producer. (Harrison would also co-author three tunes on “Rainbow Rider” his third solo album.) For “Mike Harrison” the singer also displayed his skills as a musician, playing keyboards and harp. Harrison enlisted the help of Junkyard Angel, a band from his home town of Carlisle to help him articulate the material. The tight group of Harrison confederates included former V.I.P. guitarist Frank Kenyon, future Spooky Tooth bassist Ian Herbert (who played guitar, keyboards and vibes), drummer Kevin Iverson, and bassist Peter Batey.

“Call It A Day” is the album’s noteworthy masterpiece, in which Harrison’s jaded vocal proceeds the entrance of a saintly choir. When Harrison drops out and the choir goes it alone, “Call It A Day” becomes the soundtrack to purgatory, a sonic carpet to the clouds. You can’t help but close your eyes and drink in the beauty of the choir’s calming power.

Former Spooky Tooth bandmate Luther Grosvenor wrote the jesting “Here Comes the Queen.” Harrison puffs on his harp as if he needs it to breathe, but sounds as if he’s enjoying the cheekiness of it all. What “Mike Harrison” needed was a few more hard hitting songs along the line of his interpretation of Cat Stevens’ “Hard Headed Woman”. Thanks to Harrison’s throaty, attacking performance, the first half of the song is noteworthy. An abrupt break after Harrison’s vocal and the subsequent roomy sax riffing that follows is unnecessary, but shows that Junkyard Angel could make as much joyful noise as Harrison’s old band.

“Mike Harrison” is the least essential of his solo releases, but it showed a gentler side of the scratchy-voiced singer and proved he could be a viable artist on his own. It’s worth throwing down a few dollars to own and is still in print.


Smokestack Lightning (4 stars out of 5) (1972)

Harrison ditched Junkyard Angel’s soft folk rock for “Smokestack Lightning,” his sophomore effort that was closer to his R &B and blues roots. Recorded at Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama, Harrison drafted some of the hottest session musicians of the day, including guitarists Pete Carr, Jimmy Johnson Luther Grosvenor, and Wayne Perkins, keyboard player Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood, drummer Roger Hawkins and the Muscle Shoals horns. Harrison dons his soul man persona with “What A Price,” a Fats Domino chestnut he makes his own. Barry Beckett approximates Domino’s barrelhouse piano and the underrated Pete Carr makes his guitar talk like a staggering Madi Gras reviler. The Memphis horns power up throughout, blasting through the speakers alongside Roger Hawkins’ supple drumming. Harrison is in his element here, sneaky, forceful and funky.

Harrison’s version of “I Wanna Be Free” (originally assayed when he was the lead singer of the V.I.P.s) borrows the riff from “The Beat Goes On” and puts it to better use. “Turn it Over” is a wonderfully perplexing tale penned by Harrison and former Spooky Tooth band mate Grosvenor. The lyrics are impossible to decipher, which is fine, because from what I could tell they’re about an incestuous relationship. Harrison’s vocal goes from blah to bombastic – he’s perilously close to being flat at the beginning, then digs into the bayou groove and begins to roar. Barry Beckett’s Little Richard inspired piano run demonstrates why a group with a reputation as lofty as Traffic’s drafted him to play alongside Steve Winwood, one of most heralded keyboard players in the business. Harrison sounds electrified, clapping, yelping and pontificating like a possessed snake charmer with a python in his pants. You may not be able to figure out what he’s saying, but the Deep South boogie beat will keep your feet moving.

The Chester Burnette blues workhorse “Smokestack Lightning” gets a going over like Grant took Richmond -- long and lusty with little left standing -- thanks to it’s nearly 12 minute length. Harrison lets guest guitarist Grosvenor jam mindlessly for nearly 6 of those minutes. Although the Muscle Shoals boys keep the proceedings interesting, mixing in horns, fading the mix and reprising the song with gusto, Grosvenor overstays his welcome. He’s not a compelling guitarist – even when he was with Spooky Tooth he was at best serviceable – and he certainly doesn’t warrant a six precious minutes on someone else’s solo album. The first half of the song rightfully belongs to Harrison’s, fire-breathing delivery. He snarls like a man on the torture rack, husky and pained, while blowing threateningly into his harp. He really sounds like he’s lived through the pain.

“Smokestack Lightning” and Spooky Tooth’s catalogue were reissued last year by Repertoire Records. In the process, “Tears Behind My Eyes” became “Tears” and “Turn it Over” was retitled “Turning Over,” but the performances remain the same ones you used to listen to on your now scratchy L.P. Now the sound is as sharp as freshly cleaned glass. The reissue of “Smokestack” is rife with photos and comments from Harrison, who is still obviously perplexed at own stalled career (happens when you take 25 years off, mate), but at the same time is philosophical about it.

Rainbow Rider (4 ½ stars out of 5)

“Rainbow Rider” was Harrison’s third swing at solo stardom, and as the old saying goes, three strikes and yer out. It’s a shame. If Mike Harrison had come out of his musical sarcophagus with this completely accessible effort instead of the bluesy “Later Starter” you’d already be seeing his face on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Harrison’s best album was doomed from the start. Released on the tiny Good Ear label, it had a meager distribution and was promoted poorly. By the time Island Records picked up its option in the U.S., Harrison was being hassled into early retirement by his management and couldn’t follow up.

An eclectic mix of R & B, honky tonk, country, blues and ballads, “Rainbow Rider” has something for everyone, beginning with “Maverick Woman Blues” a blazing throat-tearing rocker that ranks high on the Harrison highlight reel. Former Spooky Tooth axe-man Mick Jones lights up the guitar with tenacious riffs, while Mott the Hoople’s Morgan Fisher punishes the piano and drummer Kenny Buttrey makes the high hat sizzle like a well-seasoned minute steak on a hot grill. Midway through his carnivorous vocal Harrison pauses to suck in air like an oversized bellows stoking a bonfire. “Maverick Woman Blues” is Harrison at his raunchiest, hoarse, heavy and hard.

Harrison puts on his country hat with “You N’ Me,” a bass drum kicking stomper. British artists seldom grasp the nuances of American country/roots music, but Harrison latches onto the hillbilly hoedown feel of “You N’ Me” with Buck Owens gusto – and you gotta love that guttural growl at the end of the first verse.

Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is treated with honor with Harrison and a group of background singers belting out the chorus with controlled delight; “Easy” gets a similar stately treatment, adding magnificently melodramatic strings. The lyrics are autobiographical and revealing: “Lost out in the spotlight, that’s how it used to be. When I was down no light would shine on me…” A surprisingly buoyant remake of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out” spotlights Jones on dobro and let’s Harrison air it out his deep-dish lungs. “Okay Lady Lay,” written by Harrison and Grosvenor, is lascivious and swampy, a nudge-nudge wink-wink tale of a lady who “gives it away.” Jones gets to break out his toys, adding leering squawks on guitar through a talk box. Norbert Putnam drops in a muddy bottom line all bassists dream of, Harrison blows the harp like a favorable breeze and Fisher displays a talent for ragtime piano.

Harrison dusts off the Judy Garland classic “Somewhere Over Rainbow,” updating it with an orchestra and a group of cherubic children. On paper it sounds like a mismatch; but it’s successful because Harrison smoothes out his vocal, lacing with the right amount of desolation and yearning. “Rainbow” is a strange choice, but it underscores that Harrison could handle just about anything. The only tune that doesn’t work is the closer, “Friend,” a slick autobio penned by Harrison and Arthur Belcher. The jazzy approach forces Harrison’s voice to crack and makes him sound amateurish.

“Rainbow Rider” is in itself an unforgettable canvas for Harrison’s talent, but there’s one performance that transcends the others and takes it place among Harrison’s greatest recorded moments. The ballad “Like a Road Leading Home” is a microcosm of Harrison’s style. He starts off in a low, heartbreaking register, draws a few deep breaths and by the end of the song is shouting out the lyrics with enough power to blast the glass out of the recording booth. If you’re depressed, “Like A Road leading Home” will lift your dark cloud. It’s a truly inspiring and astounding performance.

“Rainbow Rider” is difficult to find on CD, but well worth the hunt. Until Repertoire latches onto “Rainbow Rider’ and gives it a proper revamping, the best way to land a copy may be through E-bay.


Touch - Mike Harrison Meets the Hamburg Blues Band (4 out of 5 stars) (2001)

After 1999’s “Cross Purpose” his one off reunion album with Spooky Tooth (see below), Harrison was eager to clear 25 years of dust from his throat and continue performing. But the group let the opportunity slip through their hands, failing to tour in support of the album. Being rabid Spooky Tooth fans, the members of the Hamburg Blues Band took notice of Harrison’s availability and invited him to be a guest vocalist at several of their concerts. Armed with first rate material written with former Cream/Jack Bruce lyricist Pete Brown, the Hamburg’s then persuaded Harrison to record a CD. “Touch” is more rowdy and guitar-dominated than anything Harrison recorded with Spooky Tooth and the fresh material pushes Harrison’s retooled voice to heights of excellence. One of the few low-key pieces, the world-weary “Perfect Day,” is a tear jerker that Harrison sings with a sigh in his voice. The unconventional, loopy “Make Me Smile” takes a jaundiced look at today’s code red world, with Harrison sounding appropriately paranoid: “Great big planes falling on my house, making this man turn into a mouse, can’t stand I can only crouch, waiting at the end of the queue. There’s cops hanging down at the end of the road, maybe they know something I don’t know, its spring but here comes the snow, I’m cold and turning blue.” Other stand out tracks include the strapping opener, “Hold Back”; Harrison’s crestfallen performance in the ballad “There’s a Road,” and a whipping stick remake of Spooky Tooth’s “Waiting For the Wind.”


Spooky Tooth CDs

Spooky Two (4 ½ stars out of 5) (1969)

“Spooky Two” was the band’s first classic album, an alchemy of rock, folk, R & B and gospel textures. The album kicks off with Mike Kellie’s 4/4 drumbeat, a simple yet arresting introduction for “Waiting on the Wind.” Wright’s lumbering organ foray keys Harrison’s forceful vocal: “Lonely is the night, now that darkness is falling. Nothing seems right, and the world is calling.” Harrison then attacks his keyboard, cueing Wright’s vocal. Ridley’s bass bubbles and gurgles beneath the surface and Grosvenor’s filthy guitar provides the rhythm during the chorus. It’s an eye-opening start to a classic.

“Feelin’ Bad” is one of the Tooth’s most tuneful folk rockers, written by the spiritual team of Wright and Kellie. Wright takes the tranquil, temperate, first verse. Harrison roars in on the second verse, his emphatic vocal swathed in reverb. A healthy chorus that includes Harrison clone Joe Cocker (remember, Mike was in the marketplace first) and ubiquitous back up singers Su and Sunny Weetman raises the roof, stomping like true believers. Believe it, “Feelin’ Bad” is good.

“I’ve Got Enough Heartaches” puts Harrison back in the pulpit with Su and Sunny in a more subtle setting, as if he was a sinner standing in line at the River Jordan, hoping to be saved. Kellie’s drumming is as intuitive as Ringo Starr’s, never flashy – just always on the beam. Guest star Steve Winwood infuses the sound with celestial backing on piano, giving Harrison’s pleading vocal a sense of urgency.

Live and loud, “Evil Woman” is one of the building blocks in Spooky Tooth’s legacy. Recorded with few overdubs, it catches Harrison and Wright in their full-flight demonic Righteous Brothers mold. Harrison is bluesy, chest-beating, powerful (“Woman, when I saw you comin’, should’a started runnin’, evil woman!), while Wright’s faux falsetto is laced with tragedy (“Woman! I offered to you my soul, you ran it over hot coals, you evil woman”). Wright’s organ playing is straight out of the soundtrack to a Lon Chaney horror film and will make you check over your shoulder for ghouls. Bassist Greg Ridley and Kellie drive the Neanderthal beat, and Grosvenor plays like a man plugged into an electric chair on overkill, nailing two of the best schizophrenic solos he ever recorded with the group.

“Lost on Dream” offers little respite from the soundtrack to Dante’s Inferno. Wright sings the verses in a wobbly tone, like a boy shivering under the covers after a nightmare. The song is most effective when Harrison bursts from the background of fallen angels blaspheming angrily like Lucifer after the fall: “But now I’m still lost, in my dreams I feel it’s the end for me. Somewhere on the edge of my mind waits my destiny. Don’t think I’ll go!” Ridley does his usual yeoman’s job on bass, and Grosvenor provides the eerie slicing guitar intro that sets the tone.

“That Was Only Yesterday” removes the threat, but not the sorrow from the group’s music. It’s a mournful ballad sung effectively by Harrison who also doubles on harp, playing as if he’s sitting around a campfire by his lonesome. Harrison sounds as if he’s barely able to choke back the tears as he reminisces about a lost love. His voice is devoid of the rasp he used to propel the group’s harder edged songs. Here it’s vulnerable, saturated with regret.

“Better By You, Better Than Me,” has a litigious back story. In 1985 a 19 year-old and 20 year-old shot themselves after listening to Judas Priest’s eardrum-shattering remake. It’s no small wonder the boys didn’t go after Judas Priest as well after listening to Rob Halford’s constipated vocal. One of them survived, and Judas Priest was sued for assisting in a homicide. Maiden’s version is impossible to get through, but Spooky Tooth’s is impossible to forget. Harrison’s malevolent vocal crouches alongside of Grosvenor’s thick riffs and Ridley runs his fingers down the neck mimicking the sound of a condemned man sliding into a deep dark well. It’s the stuff of lingering nightmares and another one of the Tooth’s staples.

“Hangman Hang a Shell on the Tree” is the album’s only sub par performance, a repetitious, English folk derivative with dubious lyrical expression from Wright, who tries to sound like Confucius, but is just confused. Wright’s Keith Emerson impression serves as an effective background to the unlimited number of singers belting out the chorus. Not an outright stinker (If it had been on the woeful “Ceremony” it would have been a highlight), “Hangman” has the tough challenge of not only living up to the quality of the other songs on the album, it also ends the album.

Bonus Tracks include single versions of “That Was Only Yesterday,” “Waiting For the Wind,” and “Feelin’ Bad.” There’s also a booming version of the blues chestnut “Oh Pretty Woman,” with a decidedly nasty vocal by Harrison. Too bad it wasn’t part of the original release.

The Last Puff (5 out of 5 stars) (1970)

“The Last Puff” is Spooky Tooth's best album, in part because Gary Wright and his screeching falsetto are missing. Although Wright wrote 90% of the group's material on the previous (and future) albums, the quality of the songs on “The Last Puff” isn't at all diminished -- you can't go wrong with Lennon/McCartney ("I am the Walrus"), Elton John/Bernie Taupin ("Son of Your Father"), and David Ackles ("Down River"). The album was supposed to be lead singer Mike Harrison's first solo effort (hence the subtitle “Spooky Tooth Featuring Mike Harrison”), but Chris Blackwell and the remaining band members (Drummer Kellie and guitarist Grosvenor) convinced him to make it a group effort. The album also benefits from the inclusion of Grease Band members Chris Stainton (keyboards), Alan Spenner (bass) and guitarist Henry McCulloch, who can flat out play. The three new additions help reign in the group's occasional overindulgence, particularly Grosvenor's over the top guitar solos. Grosvenor tears off one of his all time great finger-bender’s on the opening cut, "I Am the Walrus." The group strips the Beatle’s version down and turns it into an intense, ominous rocker. Spooky Tooth’s best known song was a fortunate accident – they were jamming during some down time and thought it might work. Harrison was upstairs in one of the offices at Island Records (either sleeping or writing down the lyrics to another song, depending on who you believe). Kellie fetched Harrison, and then called his wife who relayed the lyrics over the phone, and a hard rock staple was born.

"The Wrong Time," a leftover from a Gary Wright solo effort, benefits from a chorus of background singers, rattling percussion and another howling vocal from Harrison. "Something to Say," a ballad written by Chris Stainton and Joe Cocker, (an alternate version was recorded by Joe), shows that Harrison could out-Cocker Joe any day of the week. (Ironically it was Harrison who recommended Cocker to Island Records A & R man Muff Winwood.) Harrison backs away from his usual gruff delivery, his voice buttery and soft.

Harrison was often praised for his ability to wring emotion from his voice and "Down River," written by David Ackles, is a prime example. His voice sounds pained, wounded, and stops you cold. None of Harrison’s emotion is forced. While recording “Down River” Harrison was informed his close friend and former manager, Albert Heaton, had been involved in a head on collision. Heaton had been doing Harrison a favor by bringing his car from the repair shop to the studio. Heaton was in a semi-coma for three years before he died, but the guilt and grief Harrison felt at that moment was recorded for posterity. Stainton sweeps over the keyboard and Kellie holds it all together with his brand of economical drumming. "Nobody There at All" and "Son of Your Father" are tunes where Grosvenor and McCulloch show their musical chops, and the title track, an instrumental that concludes the album, puts Stainton's skills on the keyboards on display. A fitting epitaph to the first part of Spooky Tooth’s legacy, “The Last Puff” is smokin’. On a scale of five, “The Lat Puff” is a five plus.

The reissue of “The Last Puff” sports single versions of “Son of Your Father,” “I’ve Got Enough Heartache,” “I Am the Walrus” and “Hangman Hang a Shell,” plus more informative comments from Harrison.

You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw (4 ½ out of 5 stars) (1973)

Spooky Tooth’s return after a three-year hiatus begins with a blitzkrieg of sound – Mick Jones’ elephantine guitar chords, Gary Wright’s throaty keyboards, Chrissie Stewart’s punishing bass and Bryson Graham’s uncompromising drumming. The threatening arrangement is bombastic, but the song explodes when Harrison charges in, his voice a bellowing indictment. Although Mike Kellie is the group’s best known drummer, his delicate touch wouldn’t have worked here. Graham’s barely controlled anger gives “Cotton Growing Man” its heavy metal stones. As for Harrison, no on can match his monolithic power. Conversely, Gary Wright’s strength is in his writing rather than his singing. Wright has finally abandoned disguising his vocal with an ill-advised falsetto. It turns out his real voice (which is no match for George Harrison, let alone Mike) is tolerable. His muted delivery works well for “Old As I Was Born,” with its sinister, mystical underpinnings.

The rock and roll Righteous Brothers are back in action with the duet “This Time Around,” a crunching rocker written by Wright and newcomer Jones. Harrison puts his raw pipes upfront, followed by Wright, with the rest of the Tooth joining in on the chorus (with more cowbell from Graham). New bassist Chrissie Stewart gives the tune a touch of pounding funk.

“Holy Water” is a career performance by Harrison. If church services were as sanctimonious as this, parishioners would stand on each other’s shoulders if they couldn’t get a seat. Harrison’s plaintive vocal is graced by a few simple piano chords, elegant synths and a chorus of background singers that sound as if they’ve earned their wings. The wounded, drained of all hope wail Harrison lets out near the end will break your heart.

The stop and go guitar funk of “Wildfire” steps up the heat again. Harrison shifts to harp, blowing with a bluesman’s acumen as Wright puts some tenacity in his boyish voice. Stewart lays down a knee-bending bass line and Graham hits his drum kit like a mortal enemy. One complaint: Harrison’s early career was steeped in R & B. He would have torn this tune up.

“Self Seeking Man” is a towering ballad in which the narrator (Harrison) confronts his own greed and avarice. A potentially ordinary song in anyone else’s hands, Harrison infuses his vocal with Oscar-worthy drama. (It must’ve worked -- “Self Seeking Man” appears on a number of Spooky Tooth “Best Ofs”.) Wright tries a ballad of his own with “Times Have Changed,” the weakest cut on the CD, which is laid low by a cavalcade of keyboards that go nowhere.

“Moriah,” the closer, is the end of the world set to music. Harrison’s horseman of the apocalypse vocal echoes against Wright’s watery synthesizer: “Moriah…princess of the water… Where do you go? Where do you come from? My mother, she told me, you cry in the night ‘till you wake the sun.” Harrison is the high priest, waiting for a divine sign as the world around him is torn asunder. Just when you think the song is over, “Moriah” spirals into a series of death knell sound effects created by Wright. Scary and mind-blowing.

“You Broke My Heart” may not be Spooky Tooth’s best recording– that distinction belongs to the Wright-less “The Last Puff – but it’s a class "A" comeback from a group that never should have left in the first place.

The reissue of “You Broke My Heart…” adds the country-flavored “Son Of Your Father.” It’s worth it for Harrison’s commentary in the revised liner notes and the rare photos of the group.

The Rest Of The Teeth:

The VI.P.s- The Complete V.I.P.s (3 ½ out of 5 stars) (Recorded 1964-67, released 2006)

This is Spooky Tooth in their most embryonic state as The V.I.P.s, one of England’s popular beat groups. So popular that a lanky guitarist from America asked to jam with them on stage in 1966 – a guitarist named Jimi Hendrix). This 2 CD set includes a live performance recorded for a German radio show in October 1966 and features all the group’s singles including the hits “I Wanna Be Free” and “Don’t Keep Shouting at Me” (#1 and #2 hits in France, respectively). Harrison would later resurrect the group’s arrangement of “Smokestack Lightning” for his second solo album. “Don’t Let It Go” and “Back Into My Life” (later covered by Spencer Davis) are prime examples of Harrison at his chest-beating best. Harrison gives a Spooky Tooth history lesson in Chris Welch’s liner notes, which offer a glimpse of the budding music scene in the early 60s. The performances are a little dated perhaps, but after years of badly recorded bootlegs, it’s good to have a pristine version of Harrison’s earliest work. Worth a listen if you’re a fan of early English R & B.


Art – Supernatural Fairy Tales (4 out of 5 stars) (1967)

Prior to adding Gary Wright to the fold and remerging as Spooky Tooth, The V.I.P.s changed their name to Art, morphing from R & B based rock to lysergic based psychedelia and producing one album, “Supernatural Fairy Tales.” Although it’s good to hear Mike Harrison’s voice uninterrupted, Guy Stevens’ muddy production nearly stunts the growth of the band’s maturing sound. There are a pair of high flying covers -- Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” (mislabeled “What’s That Sound”) and The Rascals “Come On Up,” in which Harrison sounds as if he’s choking (yet he’s still intriguing even of he sounds gassed). The originals show that with Mike Kellie and Luther Grosvenor in the fold, Art could stretch its creative canvas in ways the V.I.P.s couldn’t. Kellie leads a percussion orgy in the tribal “African Thing,” his congas pumping like bad shocks on a low rider. “Think I’m Going Weird” (later re-recorded with a washed-out Wright vocal) and “Supernatural Fairy Tales” are artifacts of the day that so closely embrace the dream-like themes common to late 60s music you can practically smell the incense. “Alive Not Dead” is cynical ragtime with a jangly piano solo by Harrison and “Talkin’ To Myself” is a pleasant Mersey beat pop tune that takes all of 1:39 to complete.

There are two standout tracks that transcend the period. The intimidating “Love Is Real” with Kellie’s baseball cards against the spokes percussion bears an uncanny resemblance to Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” – a song that wouldn’t be written for another three years. Grosvenor’s gossamer guitar playing, Harrison’s shattered vocal and Kellie’s shuffling quietude elevate “Flying Anchors” to classic status.

“Supernatural Fairy Tales” is a product of it’s time – but what a time it was. Spooky Tooth fans should track this one down and enjoy the trip.


It’s All About (3 ½ out of 5 stars) (1968)

Rechristened as Spooky Tooth with American songwriter/keyboardist Gary Wright in the fold and producer Jimmy Miller (Traffic/The Rolling Stones) at the helm, “It’s All About” is a psychedelic curio with its share of gems, notably the Alice in Wonderland-themed “Here I Lived So Well” adorned by Harrison’s airy vocal. “Forget It, I Got It” is a potboiler of a rocker with a scorching solo from Grosvenor; “Tobacco Road” gets the Harrison/Wright rock n’ roll Righteous Brothers treatment, with Harrison bluesy delivery in the zone. The group also covers Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” in frantic over-the-top but highly listenable fashion and Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing” turns into something when the two singers bat the lyrics back and forth like lawyers in litigation. There’s a bit too much of Wright and his wobbly falsetto on the album, which ultimately takes its toll. Wright tackles “Sunshine Help Me” with élan, but the song really begins to burn when Harrison slips out from behind his harpsichord (!) and trades vocals with Wright. Harrison contributes a hefty back up vocal on “Love Really Changed Me,” offsetting Wright’s buried-in-the mix vocal and the tentative arrangement. Wright finally finds a vehicle for light vocals on “It Hurts You So,” a tender tear-jerker. Harrison’s claim in the liner notes that its Grosvenor singing the album-ending nursery rhyme “Bubbles” seems erroneous. It’s hard to believe he can’t recognize his own voice, although he does go out of his way to sound as quirky as possible. This may not be the group’s most consistent album, but “Here I Lived So Well,” “Tobacco Road” and “Forget It, I Got It,” are worth adding “It’s All About...” to your collection and will help you get your psyche on.

The reissue of “It’s All About” adds 8 bonus tracks, including a spiritual version of The Band’s “The Weight” with Harrison on vocals and harp, the band jam “Luger’s Groove” and the hard-to-find Wright performance of “Do Right People.”


Ceremony (1 out of 5 stars) (1970)

Ceremony is the album that effectively knocked the wisdom teeth out of Spooky Tooth. Following the critical success of “Spooky Tooth,” the group was poised to join rock’s elite when they were drafted to work with French weirdo artiste Pierre Henri. Henri specialized in creating “musique concrete” meaning he created artsy musical canvases out of sounds found in nature or on a crowded street. The group agreed to furnish Henri with half a dozen spiritual (okay, downright religious) songs to experiment with, unaware the end product would be christened as the group’s next album. To their horror, “Ceremony” was swamped with garish screams, chants, oscillating annoyances and, in one song, a hammering effect so incessant it was guaranteed to make listeners reach for a nail to drill into their own skulls just to make it go away. Presented as a concept album along the lines of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Ceremony” was rightfully put to the sword by critics and the group itself, who admitted the unthinkable by admitting they did it for the money. Wright, who wrote all the material, rightfully took the blame for this blunder, breaking from the group to pursue a still-born solo career. Founding bassist Greg Ridley must’ve been related to Nostradamus – he’d wisely left the group before “Ceremony” was hatched. It's hard to believe that outside of Ridley this is the same bunch of creative guys who recorded “Spooky Two.” You would think an album with biblical overtones would suit Harrison's devilish voice and would be a perfect fit for Gary Wright and Mike Kellie, who were very spiritual men. Although “Ceremony” seems like an ideal setting for a man whose voice sounds as if he’s screaming from the third circle of hell, Harrison mostly stayed in the background, contributing the lead vocal to the album’s only listenable track, the chilling “Have Mercy.” Even a devout Christian would want to crucify Wright for this material. Remove Henri's intrusive sound effects and you still have an album of weak tracks, Harrison's deliriously decadent vocals not withstanding. (Embarrassed by “Ceremony,” the remaining members, Harrison, Grosvenor and Kellie regrouped to record the group’s best album “Last Puff.”) The cover of this album says it all – a picture of a man driving a nail through his own hand and into another man’s skull – share the pain! It wasn’t a mistake or a marketing oversight that this nightmare wasn’t reissued when the group’s catalogue was overhauled last year. If they don’t like it, why should you? Avoid this misguided morass at all costs.


Witness (4 out of 5 stars) (1973)

The Tooth continued its second coming with “Witness,” an album that was almost as strong as its predecessor, “You Broke My Heart, So I Busted Your Jaw.” It was the group’s second album that year and also marked the return of drummer Mike Kellie, whose distinctive slow rolls can be heard on the opening cut (and the album’s highlight), “Oceans of Power,” a showcase for Harrison’s own vocal muscle. Kellie also collaborated with prolific keyboardist Gary Wright for several songs on the album; bassist Chris Stewart helped out on "Don't Ever Stray Away" and guitarist Mick Jones co-wrote the very poppy "All Sewn Up." Mike Harrison didn't contribute to the writing process (he seldom did), but his whiskey-throated emoting is what carries “Witness” to the Promised Land. The group also returns to a tried and true practice they hadn't used since “Spooky Two” -- duets between Harrison and Wright. The pair teams up for all but one song ("All Sewn Up") for the second half of the album. "Dream Me a Mountain," the first of the duets is the best, and features a throat tearing scream by Harrison that would have rendered a lesser singer mute. "Sunlight in My Mind" and "Pyramids" harkens back to Wright and Kellie's love affair with all things spiritual. "Pyramids" also seems to have some autobiographical references in it as Harrison sings: "I found myself beside you, I never will know how," undoubtedly a reference to Wright, an American, not only finding himself in an English rock band, but winding up the de facto leader as well. "Don't Ever Stray Away" is a dirty, R & B romp that is nearly sabotaged by some off-key back up vocals. Unfortunately, Harrison departed after this album, replaced by sound-alike Mike Patto for the group's final effort, “The Mirror”, a competent effort swamped by too many synthesizers. “Witness” is a four out of five star album, docked for three docile Wright vocals in a row, two of which, "As Long As World Keeps Turning" and "Things Change" sound too much alike.


The Mirror (3 out of 5 stars)

Spooky Tooth’s only album without founder Mike Harrison is awash with enough synthesizers to open a Sam Goody franchise, a foreshadowing of Gray Wright’s musical direction as a solo artist. Mike Patto stands in for the departed Harrison, who was in the midst of his second go-round on his own. Patto was a more accomplished keyboard player than Harrison and a prolific songwriter. He was also an inveterate wise-ass interested in making Spooky Tooth his own, which made life miserable for Wright. Still the pair made peace long enough to write “Hell Or High Water” as catchy and inspired as anything the group had recorded with Harrison. Returning drummer Bryson Graham infuses “I’m Alive” with percussive energy; Patto chokes out a Harrison-esque vocal for the toe-tapping “Two Time Love” and Wright gets spacey with the pious “Higher Circle.” “The Mirror” is hard to find, but worth seeking out.


Cross Purpose (1999) (4 out of 5 stars)

On the 25th anniversary of their premature death, Spooky Tooth reunited with its Art line up. Grosvenor, Kellie and Ridley had been in and out of the music with varying degrees of success, but Harrison had donned the togs of a nine to fiver. Coaxing Harrison back into a studio in Germany, the quintet recorded a leisurely set of covers and originals. The album improves with each cut, as does Harrison’s well-rested pipes. Grosvenor and Ridley each take an ill-advised turn at the mike. Ridley, an impressive singer with Humble Pie, has plenty of heft still left in his voice, but uses a little too much of that fake growl you hear quasi-bluesmen employ to make themselves sound gritty. Remakes of “That Was Only Yesterday” and Harrison’s solo tune “Tears Behind My Eyes” are placid and show a group mellowed with age (hey these guys are in their 60s, well past AARP material). “Love Is Real,” resurrected from the band’s early days as Art gets its sinister vibe from Harrison’s weird turn on a Kurzweil. Later he sounds like he’s having the time of his life belting out the galumphing “I Can’t Believe Its True.” The group composed “Kiss It Better,” the sarcastic closer, hints that Spooky Tooth still had plenty to say.


A NEW TOOTH…

On May 8, Koch Entertainment Distribution will release a DVD of the tribute concert for Greg Ridley -- “Spooky Tooth – Nomad Poets Live in Germany 2004” with Mike Harrison, Gary Wright and Mike Kellie. Here’s a rundown of the songs that will appear on the DVD:

1. Waitin' For The Wind
2. Sunshine Help Me
3. That Was Only Yesterday
4. The Wrong Time
5. Feelin’ Bad
6. Wildfire
7. Better By You, Better Than Me
8. Tobacco Road
9. Hangman Hang My Shell On A Tree
10. Evil Woman

Both Harrison and Wright sacrifice two performances each (is this a democratic group or what?) Missing from the performance is the group’s signature tune, “I Am the Walrus” and “I’ve Got Enough Heartache” sung by Harrison, while Wright loses his two solo performances of “Dreamweaver” and “Love Is Alive.” Maybe they’ll show up on the CD. It really doesn’t matter. Any Spooky Tooth is better than no Spooky Tooth. It’ll be great watching Harrison and Wright 30 years down the road, older, wiser, but undoubtedly still with plenty of bite.



Categories

Archives


Recent Entries

  • 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees

    for Coffeerooms by Mike JeffersonThe 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees have been announced. The artists being considered are a mixture of worthy choices,...

  • Rock Requiem - Stars That Left Us Too Soon

    for Coffeerooms by Mike JeffersonLooks like Amy Winehouse shouldn't have said no, no, no to rehab after all. The recent passing of the overindulgent chanteuse brings...

  • Paul McCartney - McCartney & McCartney II

    Paul McCartney McCartney(First Solo Album, 4 out of 5 stars) McCartney II (1 ½ out of 5 stars)Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson It's...

  • John Barleycorn Must Die - Deluxe Edition

      Traffic  John Barleycorn Must Die - Deluxe Edition  5 out of 5 stars   Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson Traffic's classic fourth album,...

  • Accidental Moments in Rock

    by Mike JeffersonThere have been many fortuitous moments in rock, such as Mama Cass introducing Graham Nash to David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Among others...Buddy...



Close