Lost in My Dream: An Anthology 1968-1974
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Spooky Tooth, one of the most underrated and celebrated rock/blues underground powerhouses of the 60s and 70s, has been getting some well deserved attention in the past few years. In 2005, Repertoire Records gave the group's back catalogue the rock royalty treatment, remastering five of their albums in digital sound, adding bonus tracks and extensive liner notes featuring comments from Spooky's lead singer, Mike Harrison.
If you can't invest in the five overhauled CDs, Esoteric Records, which specializes in filling those unique holes in your album collection, has released "Lost in a Dream: The Spooky Tooth Anthology," a 2 Disc set that extracts plenty of powder keg platters from the group's recorded legacy.
From a historical perspective (and in order to separate itself from previous collections), "Anthology" includes two previously unreleased cuts recorded in 1968, B-sides of single releases, an early version of "Lost in a Dream," and remixes of tracks from the group's last album, "The Mirror."
"Anthology" differs from previous "best ofs' and greatest hits by delving deeper into the band's catalogue. Past packages have concentrated on cuts from Spooky's first, second, and fourth albums ("It's All About," "Spooky Two," and "The Last Puff"), neglecting platters five through seven ("You Broke My Heart...So I Busted Your Jaw," "Witness," and "The Mirror"), which is surprising given their wealth of worthy material.
If you're still spinning those dusty L.Ps or shrill sounding Danish Import CDs, then you'll immediately notice "Anthology's" marked improvement in sound. Call it super Spooky. Check out Bryson Graham's driving drums on "Cotton Growing Man;" the cymbals ring and the snare crackles, and Mike Harrison's grizzled vocal is so electrified he sounds like he's standing on the third rail at Grand Central Station holding a bucket of water.
"Anthology" marks the first time cuts from the group's 1975 album "The Mirror" have been included in a career retrospective. "The Mirror" featured Harrison hologram Mike Patto (hmm... a Mike for Mike trade). In an effort to capitalize on the group's popularity in the U.S., Wright, the only American in the group, convinced most of the other members to relocate to the states. The idea didn't sit well with Harrison, who took the opportunity to restart his solo career. Mike Kellie departed as well to play for Peter Frampton and Three Man Army, eventually occupying the drum stool for punk rockers The Only Ones. Wright replaced Harrison with Patto, who'd fronted his own self-named group and would later form Boxer (which included keyboard player Chris Stainton, who'd replaced Wright for "The Last Puff." Aha! Six degrees of Spooky Tooth separation.)
Patto was well known for his pranks and uninhibited personality, which apparently rubbed Wright the wrong way, as did his desire to be the group's leader. Spooky's last configuration featured Wright, Patto, the return of drummer Bryson Graham, bassist Val Burke, and guitarist Mick Jones, who later said his experience in the Tooth showed him how not to run a rock band. Despite the debilitating power struggle between Wright and Patto, "The Mirror" was a capable album. With the popularity of synthesizers on the rise, Spooky's music took on a spacey, Moody Blues with a beat personality that predated Wright's "Dreamweaver" solo phase. Despite Harrison's absence, there were a number of notable compositions, including the title track, an introspective space ballad with Wright and Patto each taking a verse. The other notable tracks were "Two Time Love," with Patto doing a dead on Harrison imitation alongside Val Burke's string bending bass; Wright's "Higher Circles," (in which he makes his keys sound like an ascending U.F.O.), and the Patto driven shouter "Hell or High Water." All but "Two Time Love" are included on "Anthology." The album's opener, Wright/Jones' "Fantasy Satisfier" is a bit dated, with the vocals sounding as if they were recorded in the belly of an Electrolux, but anyone still having brown acid flashbacks will appreciate it.
As you've figured out by now, Spooky Tooth starts and ends with Mike Harrison. When he's the featured singer the band accelerates like a Corvette on a freshly paved open highway. With Wright at the mike, well, they're just all right. Too bad "Anthology" sometimes leans too heavily to the Wright side.
The Harrison sung, Lewis Carroll influenced "Here I Lived So Well" (also one of the few songs he's listed as a co-writer), a highlight on "Anthology's" first disc, is a classic example of the type expressive imagery of the 60's, a Brit version of "White Rabbit." Harrison's craggy voice carries Spooky's interpretation of The Band's "The Weight" (with Harrison on harp and Grosvenor on banjo), and gussies up the dirty blues standard "Pretty Woman," which finds Grosvenor turning the amps well past factory recommended settings.
Harrison shines on the cuts taken from the Wright-free "Last Puff" album, particularly on the group's signature tune in the U.S., a menacing cover of The Beatles' "I Am the Walrus," which Harrison sings with threatening demonic glee. It's no small feat that the very critical John Lennon called Spooky Tooth's version one of the best Beatle covers he'd ever heard. Wright had extracted himself from the group by the time the Tooth recorded "The Last Puff" (fall out from the astronomical failure of the previous album "Ceremony"), but willed "The Wrong Time" to the group, an edgy ballad in which Harrison enters with a mournful howl and is thereafter abetted by a bevy of backup singers and ticking percussion. The country corn of Elton John/Bernie Taupin's "Son of Your Father" further demonstrates Harrison's chameleon-like ability to adapt to any musical genre.
The group's other masterpiece, "Spooky Two," is well represented on "Anthology." With Greg Ridley's boisterous bass still on board and Grosvenor slicing through the studio as if he was a rock n' roll Jack the Ripper, "Spooky Two" was enhanced by the vocal interplay between Harrison and Wright, who sounded like a heavy metal version of the Righteous Brothers. The duo tears up "Waiting for the Wind," which opens with Mike Kellie's simple bass drum/snare kick pattern; Harrison and Wright are emotionally simpatico for the folk/rock sing-a-long "Feelin Bad," (which includes Joe Cocker and the equally capable Ridley singing in the background), and the pair sings like tortured souls in "Evil Woman," a robust nine-minute workout that was recorded live in the studio.
Unless you're a Spooky Tooth savant (like me), you won't notice the differences between the final version of "Lost in a Dream" and "Lost in a Dream (first mix)," that's included on "Anthology." For starters, Luther Grosvenor's mystical acoustic intro is missing. Harrison also gets to vamp at the end until his throat his raw, and the song crashes with Kellie patting away on the bongos. It's still a haunting cut, and a nice bonus for fans. Throw in Harrison's crouching, leering vocal, coupled with Ridley thudding bass and Grosvenor's intimidating guitar runs in "Better By You, Better Than Me," (later savaged by Judas Priest), and you've got nearly every cut from "Spooky Two."
The group indulges it's excesses in Janis Ian's "Society's Child" and "Tobacco Road," two covers featured on their debut album "It's All About" (released in the U.S. as "Tobacco Road"); but in this case, throwing caution to the wind works. Harrison's made for da blooze expressiveness shakes the rafters in "Tobacco Road," making up for Wright's Edith Bunker pitched responses. Harrison and Wright covey Ian's controversial lyrics in "Society's Child" with a sense of dread as Kellie hammers his high hat and Ridley rattles his bass.
Again, unless you live and breathe Spooky Tooth, you may not care that the order of the tracks taken from the albums are switched around on "Anthology." "The Wrong Time" the second song on "The Last Puff" precedes "I Am the Walrus," the album's first track. Given "Walrus'" thunderous effect it would have worked nicely on the heels of "Hosanna's" horrific huffing. "Cotton Growing Man" should have preceded "Times Have Changed" and "Wildfire" chronologically and would have made a more effective 1-2 listening punch coupled with the later. Next time let's do the set list the way it was intended, kids.
Like many group's formed in the 60s, Spooky Tooth enjoyed experimenting with their sound; and like their contemporaries, their achievements were memorable, while their failures were forgettable.
The two tunes pulled out of the vault date back to 1968, after the group's first album as Spooky Tooth, "It's All About..." "When I Get Home" has a looming, boiling arrangement, making it sound like a warm up for the nightmarish "Ceremony" album, but its threatening effect is torpedoed by Wright's castrated lead. Harrison would have taken the implied evil in the atmosphere all the way to Hades and back. Perhaps Wright was just manning the vocal parts for the demo. Grosvenor proves once again that he was one of rock's least disciplined guitarists - sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. (Here it definitely doesn't. Somebody get Luther some headphones please so he can follow along.) Similarly, the second unreleased track, "Something Got Into Your Life" also proves to be a pedestrian track. Both cuts were consigned to the vaults for the past 40 years and there's nothing in Wright's boy soprano delivery to warrant their release now. Grosvenor recovers to give "Something" a go of it, providing fascinating fills (told you, he was either hit or miss), but something's notably absent - yeah, it's Harrison.
Two instrumentals surface to take up valuable space. "Luger's Groove," a 1968 B-side, is an incomprehensible jam with Wright showing off his jazzy chops, Harrison chording on organ, and Grosvenor making his guitar shriek like a harpooned whale. If there was a groove the boys never found it, and they should have used a Lugar on the final fix. On the other hand, the title track instrumental to the group's fourth album, "The Last Puff," written by charter member Chris Stainton (destined to be Harrison sound-alike Joe Cocker's musical director), offers a bluesy balance between Stainton's piano and Kellie's sturdy drumming. Still, you have to wonder why it was included when "Something to Say" (co-written by Joe Cocker) or the pained desperation of "Down River" would have been better picks.
The inclusion of "Hosanna" from "Ceremony" is a reminder of the group's precipitous fall from grace in the span of one release. "Ceremony," Spooky's third album, was labeled an "electronic mass." It's an unlistenable, unintelligible insult, yes, an electronic mess. Following the triumph of "Spooky Two," the nightmarish sound effects of "Ceremony" not only dulled the group's momentum, it nearly destroyed Spooky Tooth altogether. Granted, no one in the group expected Musique Concrete artiste Pierre Henry to take Gary Wright's religious rock opera and swamp it with insane asylum sound effects, but someone had to be held accountable, so Wright took the heat, hanging up his Hammond. Only Harrison's willingness to put a hold on his solo career and his extraordinary effort to put out what turned out to be the group's best album ("The Last Puff") saved the Tooth's rep. "Ceremony's" lone "Anthology" entry, "Hosanna," is a shrieking crazed acid trip in the guise of a religious epiphany that would make Linda Blair's head spin around and puke green pea soup. Too bad it opens "Anthology's" second CD; non fans are liable to get the wrong idea and shut 'er down too soon. Shame on you, Gary Wright.
As one of Mike Harrison's biggest fans (can't you tell?), I reserve the right to quibble about the inclusion of too many vocal turns by Gary Wright. Okay, I get it - Wright wrote nearly all of the material, but Harrison's threatening growl dominated the group's sound, and it was his unique tonsils that got the group airplay. So I'm a bit peeved Esoteric included Wright's wan vocal of "Weird" instead of Harrison's original vocal for "(I Think I'm Going) Weird," and picked the obtuse hang 'em high imagery of "Hangman Hang My Shell On a Tree," as well as "Times Have Changed," and "The World Keeps on Turning," weak Wright sung cuts from the albums "You Broke My Heart" and "Witness."
The omission of "That Was Only Yesterday" from "Spooky Two" is inexcusable. It was one of the band's hits, and is a prime example of how Harrison could transition from raw rocker to cool crooner. "Anthology" also could have benefited from the inclusion of other Harrison helmed tracks: "Forget it, I Got it" from "It's All About," a hip-shaker in the vein of Spencer Davis' "I Can't Get Enough of It;" the gospel inspired "Holy Water" with Harrison's voice resembling the cry of a fallen angel; or the Armageddon rock of "Moriah," with big Mike growling from the seventh circle of hell. Mark Powell, who compiled the liner notes, makes no secret that "You Broke My Heart...So I Busted Your Jaw" and "Witness" aren't his favorite Spooky albums. Well, they're among mine, so there you go, Mark. I'm happy Mark and his buddies picked one of the three duets from "Witness," but "Sunlight of My Mind" is the weakest; the ominous "Dream Me a Mountain," with Harrison shredding his lungs, or the prophetic "Pyramids" would have been better choice.
Mike Harrison was on board for the reunion album "Cross Purpose" in 1999, along with original members Grosvenor, Ridley, and Kellie (no Wright - he wasn't an original member). Harrison, Wright and Kellie reformed under the Spooky Tooth banner in 2004 for a pair of concerts that produced the DVD and CD "Nomad Poets" (4 out of 5 stars). Kellie has since thrown in his drum sticks with reunited punk rockers The Only Ones. Greg Ridley passed away in 2003 from pneumonia, and Luther Grosvenor fronts his own band of renegade rockers. (No update on whose career Pierre Henry is currently ruining.) The good news is the two core members, Harrison and Wright, recently decamped earlier this year to play concerts in Germany and plan out a new album. But until Spooky Tooth hits these shores you have "Anthology" and Mike Harrison's haunting vocal prowess to remind you what a talented bunch they were.
Things change, but come hell or high water, this Spooky Tooth anthology is a fantasy satisfier that will leave you happily lost in a dream.
Check out my "The Whole Tooth" article from March 2007, which can be found in the Coffeerooms archives. It covers Mike Harrison and the group's careers in detail, and I do mean detail.