So, you are a soul/Blues band in the model of the Artwoods or Spencer Davis and you get a support slot on a tour with Pink Floyd. Bye-bye The Five Proud Walkers and hello Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera. There is little question of the talent in the band as different members went on to The Strawbs, Hudson Ford, Stretch and the West End run of ‘Hair’.
This ‘anthology’ covers the two albums, a very rare monophonic promo version, a series of BBC John Peel sessions and a goodly number of out-takes and different versions.
What strikes me immediately about the first album is just how good the bass playing is, really tying the band together. The next thing is what fun the band seem to be having. There are plenty of drug references – the single ‘Mary Jane’ was banned by the Beeb when they realised that it referred to marijuana – and a couple of tracks on the first album that are definitely acid influenced, but it has a lot of the feel of early Floyd i.e. Syd Barret. Sometimes a little bit twee but also very danceable. Techniques such as phasing were being tried as well as a very early Mellotron so the sound of the band is not limited to any particular form but best to put them down as ‘mid-sixties psychedelic. pop’. ‘Flames’ and ‘Long Nights Of Summer’ are probably the standout numbers but the album holds together pretty well all through. A great number of people have called out the album as highly influential but it wasn’t a commercial success.
By the time of their second album, singer Dave Terry (aka Elmer Gantry) and guitarist Colin Forster had both left and, with the addition of Paul Brett and John Joyce, the band moved in a different direction – more Americanized and mainstream and a little less ‘pop’. By now, they were calling themselves Velvet Opera. The album is actually pretty good. The songwriting is less twee and Brett’s vocals are stronger than Gantry’s. There is a ‘dylanesque’ timbre to the sound on some tracks but others such as ‘Raga’ are far more ‘English Hippie’.
Buried deep on disc 2 are 2 stunning version of Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’ recorded for the BBC a year before Hendrix and the album is probably worth it for them alone.
It’s a fascinating look at a British pop band on the cusp of the psychedelic era and there is no shortage of good material.