Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Hatfield and the North - Hatwise Choice

Hatfield and the North
Hatwise Choice

Released 2005 on Burning Shed
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 02/02/2005ce

I reckon it's fair to say that we Hatfield fans haven't exactly been spoilt for recorded kicks over the past third of a century. Two virtually faultless albums, a marvellous track on a zero-selling sampler and one beyond-perfect 45 in the band's short lifetime; a barely available compilation album in 1980, then a short live album marking a one-off, partial reformation ten years later, is about all we've been granted. So the release of the first "new" material from the original line up since I was in the first half of my teenage years (and I'm 44 now!) is an excuse for a bit of a party as far as I'm concerned. In fact, to name-drop the only other track regailed upon us in the Hatfields' lifetime, I'm halfway between heaven and earth.

That said, to describe the bulk of the material on 'Hatwise Choice' as "new" is slightly misleading. It's true that none of this gleaming gold has been released officially until now, but with a handful of exceptions - of which more later - every track is an alternative version of what we've had before, cleverly retitled to give a clue to its origins. But an outtakes collection this most definitely is NOT. For whilst the two 'proper' albums 'Hatfield and the North' (1973) and 'The Rotters' Club' (1975) were superbly recorded and perfectly realised albums of great precision and charm, the anarchy and abandon of the band, exemplified in part by often substantial passages of half-formed or totally improvised linking passages in live performance, was only partly in evidence. With 'Hatwise Choice', this vital element of Hatfield is fully revealed at last to those who, like me, never had the pleasure of catching one of Britain's most inventive, characterful, funny, intense - and sometimes terrifying - bands in concert. The session and live concert material compiled here has all of these ingredients in abundance.

So what have we got? The disc starts promisingly, like the 'Afters' compilation referred to above, with the 'A' side of Hatfield's sole 45 'Let's Eat (Real Soon)', here retitled 'Absolutely Wholesome', in a version recorded for John Peel in 1974. If you loved that single, as I did, you'll love this too, even if it offers little new other than a couple of slight lyric changes. It's with 'La Barbe est La Barbe'/'Sober Song' (a Top Gear precursor of 'Shaving Is Boring'/'Licks For The Ladies') that the real excitement starts. This is the band at their most free and exciting - particularly Richard Sinclair, who dominates the first half of the track with his gorgeous, lyrical bass, then kickstarts his fuzz pedal and goes into orbit. The second half belongs to Phil Miller, who incidentally, axe fiends, has never sounded more possessed than he does on this record - even non-believers to the Canterbury cause owe it to themselves to check this out if mesmerising guitar thrills are their bag. Then, just like on the first Hatfield LP, but even more decisively here, the sublime racket subsides into the beautiful, awesomely tuneful Sinclair ballad (to black knickers) that is 'Licks For The Ladies', here sung even more touchingly than the original. It's purer, more soulful, and more heartfelt than ever before. And it's a belter, lads and lasses.

Then come the album's first all-new songs, 'Hattitude' and 'Strand On the Green', recorded for Peel's show in 1974 and never heard by these virgin ears until now. The former is another showcase for Richard Sinclair, who lets rip with another amazing fuzz bass trip that makes Jack Bruce sound like Sid Vicious. Then, 'Strand' bursts in with one of those patent Dave Stewart keyboard fanfares that had set many a bedsitted spinal hair on end ever since the first Egg album, before we fall into the sublime pleasure of the original 'Your Majesty Is Like A Cream Donut'/'Oh What A Lonely Lifetime'/'Donut Reprise', not available to the deprived general public since its all-too-rare appearance on the Virgin 'V' sampler way back in 1975. Here it's retitled 'Hotel Luna'/'The Lonely Bubbling Song'/'Stay Jung And Beautiful', and what it loses in finesse against the original (which was incidentally this boy's first exposure to the joy that is Hatfield and the North), it more than makes up for in playfulness (Sinclair's gargling vocal being even more pronounced than on 'V') and sheer, in-yer-face excitement. Try the '(Big) John Wayne' coda out for size, and see if you remain standing at the end. Gargantuan.

'Dave's Intro' - is, like it says on the tin, a delicious keyboard prelude, previously unheard, joined after a minute or so by Phil Miller's teasingly quick taste of the later National Health epic 'Tenemos Roads' before the familiar intro to 'The Yes/No Interlude' (here retitled 'Take Your Pick', in deference to Michael Miles) kicks in. Again, this leaves the studio version standing for thrills and spills. It offers what sounds like a bonus preview of the foot-tapping waltz sequence from 'Tenemos' in the middle, over which Phil Miller screams and squeals his exemplary guitar with gusto - before reverting to the 13/8(?) mayhem that forms the core of the track, and in turn a frustratingly short burst of the aforementioned 'Halfway Between Heaven and Earth' before fading. Oh, to have had the whole song. But I'm being greedy.

'Son Of Plate Smashing Dog' and 'May The Farce Be With You' are short, poorly-recorded messarounds that serve to show the boisterous side of the band in a live setting. I guess you had to have been there, and by Christ, I wish I had. Never mind, they account for less than two minutes of the disc's overall length and can easily be endured or skipped as you wish. In anycase, the first named acts as a taster for the live '(Son Of) There's No Place Like Homerton' rock-out that is 'Thanks Mont' (doffing a cap to Dave Stewart's erstwhile Eggmate), complementing its antecedent without surpassing it, mainly due to the slightly recessed, tinny sound quality of its live origin. The same most certainly can't be said for 'Amsterdamage 11/19' that follows, however. Originally bearing the magnificent title of 'Gigantic Land Crabs In Earth Takeover Bid' on the first Hatfield LP, this live revamp overcomes any sonic shortcomings with a searing, urgent energy and intensity that makes it the most exciting slice of Canterbury cake on record. In its studio version it sounded big and weird enough, despite the over-polite mix that was the first album's only negative factor. Here, its original title becomes far less flippant and ludicrous and far more appropriate, for here is Hatfield and the North at their most vital, strange and downright horrifying. Phil Miller's searing, almost-but-not-quite Santana/Fripp axe melange goes completely over the edge atop the most androit, undanceable yet irresistible, clod-hopping rhythm ever made by anyone EVER. Try, and fail, to work out the time signature happening around that massively distorted, yet childlike ("nuuuhh-nuuhh, nuuh-nuh nuuh nuuuhh") riff that no-one in this world has ever attempted anything even remotely alike. And wonder, as throughout this album, at Pip Pyle's powerhouse, almost indefinable drumming that manages the most off-the-planet rhythms completely naturally with a rock-based power that was only partially evident on Hatfield's recorded legacy until now. This is totally unique, timeless, virtually formless rock and roll, owing absolutely bog all to American blues and everything to English eccentricity and invention, albeit with a slight whiff of Zappa in the background. Hear it, love it, and be proud.

Still a third of the album I haven't mentioned, and I'm running out of space. There's a monumental Phil Miller triumvirat called 'Finesse Is For Fairies'/'Ethanol Nurse'/'Writhing And Grimacing' which starts with an incredibly infectious, almost pop chord sequence that is crying out for a Sinclair vocal but never gets one, before metamorphisising into the Matching Mole-originated, Sabbath-meets-Softs horror-riff once known on 'Little Red Record' as 'Nan True's Hole'. Here it even more than before assumes the role of imminent woolly mammoth attack that it always did, and then some. Imagine said monster chewing you up slowly, agonisingly, spitting you out then repeating the experience over and over again, and you'll get the idea. 'Writhing' will be familiar to Hatfielders as 'Lything And Gracing' on the 'Afters' compilation; here its better recorded and boasts a jaw-droppingly fast organ solo by the number one boasting, but still unsung, keyboard hero that is Dave Stewart. 'For Robert' (presumably a pun on Caravan's most famous song) is effectively a rewrite of 'Rifferama' from the first album, blending nicely into the "new" 'Blane Over Paris" where Richard Sinclair's ever-faithful falsetto precedes a manic keyboard and synth avant-extravaganza that resembles what George Harrison's amateurishly-admirable 'Electronic Sounds' might have been had its creator had time to master his chosen instrument for the event. "Effing Mad Aintcha", another free composition evolving out of the criminally catchy Dave Stewart mini-track 'Laundry Soup', is very much in the same vein. The Charleston-meets-Python and Led Zep Top Gear ad that follows is a real belly laugh, sounding much better than it did from its previous internet sources. And there's a chance to savour Richard Sinclair's version of 'Calyx', sung on the first Hatfield LP by Robert Wyatt, at the close. Truth be told, there's not much to choose between either, but the guitar sounds so much finer here.

Okay, I know I've broke the 'Unsung' rules here. This is a brand new release that I only heard for the first time a few days ago, although I've played it constantly thereafter. But come on, with a nom-de-plume like mine I ain't gonna be lying about my enthusiasm for this record. New as it may be, it offers fresh, exciting slants on compositions I have known and loved to distraction for thirty years, which - and this is the main point here - place them in a less formal, less precise, more spontaneous and far more exciting context than those (still wonderful) studio records provided. This is Hatfield in their raw, experimental and buck-naked state, with bucketloads of power and precious little of the 'Canterbury cup of tea' tweeness of which Julian and others have been so critical in these pages. The Hatfield of 'Hatwise Choice' actually ROCKS, and big time. They're just waiting for you to discover, or rediscover them, and not just because their second album inspired the name of a currently popular novel and TV series. I genuinely believe they are the finest English rock band ever. You can test my judgement at the Mean Fiddler in Charing Cross Road on March 18th. I might buy you a beer if I'm proved wrong!

(Available online from www.burningshed.com)

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