Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sweet Smoke - Just a Poke

Sweet Smoke
Just a Poke

Released 1970 on EMI
Reviewed by Badgerman, 15/11/2004ce

'Nay- Sweet Smoke is neither a new cigarette nor an invitation to smoke hashish. Sweet Smoke- originally Sweet Smoke of the Happy Plant pipeful- is a new band with Michael Paris (Saxophone and Vocals), Andy Dershin (Bass Guitar), Marvin Kaminowitz (Lead Guitar and Vocals), Jay Dorfman (Drums, Percussion) and Steve Rosenstein (Rhythm Guitar)'.

I read the above whilst standing in a French hypermarket, holding in my hand a record I'd just plucked from a bargain bin. I was waiting for my parents to finish buying crates of wine on our return journey from our annual middle-class vacance. Aged 17 I considered myself a smoker of intermediate level. So an album cover featuring an exotic middle Eastern-style scene dominated by sage energetically smoking a spliff rolled with stars and stripes was bound to catch my eye. I didn't believe the sleevenotes- this was an obvious invitation to smoke hashish. Anyway, the hypermarket was selling 2 albums for 10 francs. So with John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album also in hand, I gambled 5 francs on this strange looking record. 16 years have passed, and I'm still listening to it regularly. Still touched by its unique charm.
'Just a Poke' only has two songs, at around 16:30 each. My copy was a 1971 issue with the sides printed in the wrong order, so for years I thought side A was 'Silly Sally' and side B was 'Baby Night'. So my first taste of the album was the opening drum followed by saxophone followed by amazing groove of 'Silly Sally'. The album will always start with 'Silly Sally' for me. But what really hooked me were the fantastic rhythm guitar, spiky and clean like some of Bob Weir's finer moments, and the vocals, opening with the line 'Well now Sal-Sal-Sally, Meet me tonight, I've got thing I wanna show you, Meet me tonight, We're gonna ride out together, coz we're victimized' were the smoothest sung coolest lyrics I'd heard in a rock album. Soon he's singing about 'freaking out' over a full-tilt groove that is not jazz rock in the tedious, studious way, but rather a Jazz soul improvised expansive headswirler played by a phenomenal psychedelic rock band. For those who recoil from the wilder reaches of improvised music, then relax, this is true easy listening. Soon however Kaminowitz's guitar kicks in for a gnarly wah-wah solo that motors over the rhythm like a buzz saw. Followed by a bass solo- and a good one, no joke. Then- yikes- a drum and percussion solo that is so fine it makes Led Zeppelins's Moby Dick sound like the gruelling oafish pointless thumping it really is (and most drum solos for that matter). Then all back together for a very delicious sax solo. I know this probably sounds terrible, but it isn't- it's incredible!
So the official opener 'Baby Night' was my second taste of Sweet Smoke. I can see know why it opened the album- it is the stronger piece in some ways. With its gentle, eerie flute and twin guitar intro, 'Baby Night' is one of the most beautiful songs I know. The vocals follow soon with 'In a world of glass teardrops, in a world of glass teardrops, you know it sounds so good...you hope it never, never stops'. I once saw a record by Jeremy and the Satyrs with a song called 'In the World of Glass Teardrops' of about 1967/8 in shop and wondered whether this was the source. At £18 I wasn't that curious. It would make sense that this is a cover version as after a while the song drifts into another classic groove which builds and builds through solo after solo before lurching suddenly into The Doors 'Soft Parade'. Considered by many to be The Doors' lowest ebb, the 'Soft Parade' sounds amazing here. Shorn of Fatso Morrison's bullshit, only the core elements of the song- i.e. the song itself, not the wank- are reproduced here (with a different singer to the earlier bit, I've never found out which vocal parts were Paris's and which were Kaminowitz's). We stay with the 'Soft Parade' motif as the track breaks down a bit into some more dirty guitar solos. Then a final refrain of 'In a World of Glass Teardrops' and it's all over. Two songs- one lifetime. So who were they?
For years I puzzled over this. They seemed to have left no trace, and had no place in the beard strokers canon of rock history. The cover was reproduced in Storm Thorgensen's Album Covers of the 60s book, but that was all. I came across a cd in a FNAC store in France a few years ago, but never saw it in England. Eventually the internet sorted out the mystery. Sweet Smoke were an American band which relocated wholesale from Brooklyn to a village in Germany in around 1969/ 1970 where they set up a commune. Which is why they were never known much outside of Germany, Holland, and France. They may have released an early single in the States, the organ led blinder 'Mary Jane is to Love' of 1967/8, (available on the 'Marijuana Unknowns compilation) but this is quite a different sort of track (it may well be a different band). Very good though.
'Just a Poke' was engineered by none other than Conrad Plank, of krautrock fame. It differs from other 'krautrock' records- they were American of course, but it sounds more West Coast and less abrasive (although I also like abrasive) than, say, Can or Faust. Sweet Smoke lived and played at their commune for a few years, and released a follow up, 'Darkness to Light', in 1973 and a live album in 1974. These seemed a disappointment when I first heard them, but I think they're marvellous now. The live album is much like 'Just a Poke', but looser, more obviously improvised, with a great version of Pharoah Sanders 'The Creator has a Masterplan' tucked inside 'First Jam' showing their love of Jazz. And the spiritual life. The second album is very much the work of a commune band, with friends and family members joining in krishna style chants and sitars going off amidst the trademark jazzfreak workouts. It also has a few short 'songs'- 'Just Another Empty Dream' is like an edgier, stranger Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The second album, a fascinating period piece which is often stunning, is a very different beast to the first. As both studio albums can be obtained as a twofer on cd, you can get the whole package pretty cheaply.
My accidental introduction to 'Just a Poke' wasn't unique. On the band's official website, a Hungarian fan has written: 'the first time I heard the album was in 1986 when I was 17- on a cold winter morning I found a lost old record dropped by someone in the street. I took it home and played it on my record-player- I found the music really great and magical and up to now this album is one of my favourite!!!'. Or as John Lennon, whose 'Plastic Ono Band' was also a revelation, put it '...But I'm not the only one'. Sweet dreams.

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