Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Strife
Rush


Released 1975 on Chrysalis
Reviewed by achuma, 03/01/2006ce


Like me, you might have occasionally wondered about this album, just from its cover. The eye-catching Hipgnosis sleeve features a couple of blokes in a field with dark clouds overhead, dressed up like samurai warriors and going at each other with katanas. On closer inspection I found it amusing in a smarty-pants kind of way, because no self-respecting samurai would go into battle with such scruffy hair and lack of pants under their armour! Anyway, the overall effect is pretty cool and the big STRIFE in ragged red letters jumps out at you. Why the album didn’t attract much attention is anyone’s guess, but I suppose the choice of album title may have confused many prospective purchasers over the years that this was actually an album by Rush. Still, they weren’t to know back in ’75 that Rush would turn out to be so big, if they were even aware of their Canuck cousins.
Anyway, whenever I would flick through my copy of ‘The Album Cover Album’ I’d often find myself stopping at the cover of this one and wondering what kind of music they did. I never really cared enough to try to find out on the internet, but one day I read a review that made it sound like it was actually pretty good and likely to be right up my alley. Wasting no time, and by now in love with just the idea of the album due to both an infatuation with Oriental martial arts and swordplay – even just pictures of swords – and a new-found awareness that I’d been missing out, I tracked it down on CD over the internet and a week later I was real glad that I did.
Comprised of the hairy trio John Reid [guitar, vocals, harmonica], Gordon Rowley [bass, vocals] and Paul H. Ellson [drums], Strife formed some time around 1972 [or thereabouts] and became a popular though obscure live band, playing support to the likes of Jethro Tull, Baker Gurvitz Army and Procol Harum. Eventually they got signed by Chrysalis and put together an album using their most popular live material. And that’s the album I’ve been talking about, ‘Rush’.
‘Back Streets of Heaven’ is a chunky opening blast of hard biker-metal, charging along kinda like a tumble of Bang-meets-Budgie-meets-Nazareth with the thrust of [San Francisco’s] Shiver, and with neat vocal harmonies on the choruses. Tough as nails, but with a positive vibe, it’s like a celebration of just being alive, whether you’re living in a cardboard box or a dream mansion. Hell, maybe this sounds like the MC5 jamming with Sweet!
‘Man of the Wilderness’ changes direction to the kind of dark-woods underground prog that brings all kinds of mythic mystery to mind, dwarves cutting down wolves with battle axes on a misty moor and the like, though the lyrics don’t really go that way. Actually I’m yet to decipher the lyrics on this one. This is no pansy wipe though, the whole thing chugs along hard and direct with precise guitar chops and fluid, pummelling bass through various changes. This track reminds me a lot of Steel Mill, another great unhailed UK band.
‘Magic of the Dawn’ is another heavy chargin’ bull like the opening track, but ballsier, doomier and less shrill. The harmony vocals are used again to great effect. Usually I don’t go in for harmonies a great deal, but when they’re done well with some appropriate heavy riffing action, like here, I’m a sucker for them.
‘Indian Dream’ starts off with a clichéd Native American dum-da-da-da drum beat and synth melody [not that Native Americans are known for their synth work; and it’s credited on the album as ‘string effect’, contributed by Ken Freeman], before mellow plaintive vocals enter, leading into a propulsive bass riff that swings the whole thing up a notch and just keeps building, turning sadness into hope and all that. Might sound cheesy but methinks it moves me! There’s not even any guitar until this section gets to its wailing climax, before the whole affair settles down again to a reprise of the first bit, only now some of the melancholy has lifted, the storm clouds have parted, old memories and dreams swim in misty eyes giving birth to something better. Before long it’s building up, up, up again, the synth kicks into a single note high drone, the guitar goes wild, bass and drums are ticking like an atomic clock and it all fades out to nothing.
‘Life is Easy’ is a bit of bouncy pop fluff really, a positivist diversion to open what would be side 2 on the original vinyl. Shamelessly vibrant and happy, and with a horn contribution [ick] on the choruses, it still rocks, and though it should be kinda crap, it’s not really.
‘Better Man Than I’ is a fast hard boogie kind of thing with slinky rhythm section, great catchy chorus and harmonies, in fact the whole thing is pretty nifty really. This track sounds quite a bit like Agnes Strange.
The closing track, all twelve minutes of ‘Rush’, takes a little while to reveal its secrets. However, it’s still a corker all the way through, broken into three parts – ‘People Running ‘Round’, ‘More Haste, Less Speed’ and ‘Final Fling’. Starting off in a hard and fast boogie metal thing, it’s soon broken by all kinds of rifforama changes, before going back to the opening tune and back again a few times. Harmonica kicks in, accompanying a chugging dirty riff. Then – who would have guessed it – this all just melts into space rock with echoed guitar, and the bass climbing up, down, around, exploring the cosmos that’s now suddenly opened up in what was a sleazy pub a moment ago... Now we could be listening to spaced Guru Guru, Amon Düül II or Hawkwind. It just spaces out more and more until the whole circus is just hanging there, molecules orbiting, then a metronomic beat kicks in, bass and guitar join, and we’re in a heavenly plateau with a chiming riff growing that reminds me of something out of Tommy... Then we all fall down and plunge straight back into the galaxy, echo guitar going crazy in both channels, tribal drums propelling the whole shebang, and it all stops with a blam! of a chord. Things start building again slowly with a doomy bong-metal riff that could have come from the Far Out album, and before you can scratch your crotch everyone’s here, rocking along at a healthy pace. Just getting into it when it settles into a single-note bass charge into the mind and all falls apart again. Ominous echo guitar slicing meshes over the new motorik beat and it all just swims around in the stars for a while. The bass kicks back in with a simple but grimly insistent two-note riff and it seems like we’re catching a live Hawkwind gig circa 1972, operating in the zone. Then a gong hits, mind portals open and it all just peels off into greater weirdness, higher, higher, higher, with the bass dropping down to the engine room to keep that sucker going. Then, ka-chunk, down to earth or perhaps suddenly caught up in some space war, it’s dig in time with the heavy riffs, the pace picks up several notches, double-tracked guitar goes wild, as does the bass and drums. Just as you’re hoping for 10 more minutes of this, it fades out and that’s it. The end.
I always feel a bit sad when this album finishes and just want to play it again, but at the same time I try not to play my favourite albums too much, so the magic doesn’t wear off through continuous exposure. So, I just have to look forward to the next time I dig it out for a play. I’ve never come across this on vinyl, but you should be able to pick it up at a medium price on CD, as it was reissued in 2001 on Zoom Club Records.
Strife only made one other album, 1979’s ‘Back to Thunder’, which I know nothing about, but I wouldn’t bet on it being nearly as good as the first one. Rowley joined the band Nightwing after that; no idea what happened to the other guys.


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