Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Mighty Baby - Mighty Baby

Mighty Baby


Released 1969 on Head Records
Reviewed by Rust Phimister, 05/01/2009ce


Mighty Baby is an album that encapsulates all that was wonderful and magical about the psychedelic age. I've listened to a lot of early psychedelic and progressive music, and to be honest it can be a real mixed bag. For every King Crimson or Mothers of Invention, you get a half-dozen Curved Airs or Mouses (and even they weren't the worst!). Interestingly, the pros and cons of late-60s psychedelic varied enormously depending on whether you were in England or the US.
American bands had edge, a political message and were bona-fide rock bands with an experimental side. Think Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, The United States of America or Quicksilver. Yes, they could do folky vocal harmonies and acoustic niceties, but their towering moments were generally displayed when they cranked up the volume to max and unleashed torrents of musical fire on ecstatic hippy audiences all set on ending the Vietnam War and bringing love to the masses. The downside was that most of these bands, even the best ones, could get bogged down in directionless jamming, or they too often displayed such a glaring lack of musical and lyrical virtuosity that they very quickly ran out of pertinent and arresting things to say or record. Not many lasted the distance, and those that did never managed to recapture the glory of the 67-70 period.

In Britain, it was something of the reverse effect. With softer drugs, and no war to get riled up about, English psych-prog tended to be a bit soft, or seriously pretentious. The best moments yielded some truly fantastic, genre-defining albums (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd, Disraeli Gears by Cream, In Search of the Lost Chord by the Moody Blues or The Pretty Things' SF Sorrow are true classics), with a musical variety and lyrical depth that most Yank bands were incapable of, steeped in the blues/folk/jazz/traditional musical histories of England, Europe and the US. But most of the output from the time has aged poorly, and gets bogged down by the kind of pretentiousness that makes you want to yank your hair out, and which sadly would become one of the defining characteristics of the next decade's prog-rock scene.

Mighty Baby avoided all such traps on their debut. Indeed, they somehow instead managed to combine the best of both psychedelic scenes while all the while excising all the above-mentioned flaws. Amazing! The result is Mighty Baby, a gloriously inventive album, and a lost gem of British rock.

Erroneously, Mighty Baby are often referred to as a British Grateful Dead. The one thing they did share with Jerry Garcia's band was a sense of vocal harmony, and like the Dead, used their combined voices as a way of compensating for their lack of a true lead singer in the Eric Burdon/Grace Slick mould. But Mighty Baby is a much harder-hitting, more lucid album than anything The Grateful Dead ever produced, with more aggressive guitar solos and rhythm.

This is not to say it’s not adventurous, or trippy. Quite the opposite, in fact. Lead singer, saxophonist and keyboardist Ian Whiteman was a jazz fan in the Soft Machine-mould, and displayed a strong interest in Eastern and North African music, adding rich horn textures and exotic flourishes to Mighty Baby's rock groove. Opening track 'Egyptian Tomb' is a glorious demonstration of his skill, a subtle blend of hard-rocking energy and outlandish flights of fancy, as bursts of sax wrap themselves around driving guitar riffs and soaring organ solos. The lyrics are deeply mystical, serving as a mirror of the album’s bizarre cover, with musings on ancient Egypt and the enigmatic figures and rituals of that culture. Closing track ‘At a point between fate and destiny’ (with a typical late-sixties title) reprises the exotic flavour of ‘Egyptian Tomb’ and brings to mind images of a deep, red sun setting over a barren desert. This music is mystical, almost haunted, clearly as adventurous and far-reaching –if not more so- as anything by Soft Machine or Pink Floyd were doing at the same time. In fact, for me it is closer to what seminal German band Agitation Free would release a couple of years later, making Mighty Baby something of a rarity in Britain at the time - a British prog/psych band with the sensitivity of Krautrockers. Yet it's also perfect hippy music, dreaming of another reality, and provides a great signpost for the prog-rock scene of Yes and ELP that was to follow.

But, unlike so many of their contemporaries, Mighty Baby don’t get bogged down in their ambitions. Each song is perfectly mastered, the instrumentation concise but masterful. ‘Egyptian Tomb’ may be weird, but don’t expect an overdose of sitars or incomprehensible time signatures. Here we have dazzling guitar work-outs and pounding bass and drums to keep the song steady and groovy. ‘I’ve been down so long’ has echoes of blues, but is played like a traditional English folk tune, with gorgeous harmonies and a discreet arrangement. ‘House without windows’ shares similar themes to ‘Egyptian Tomb’, and is in fact almost creepy in its lyrical content, but is a full-blooded rocker with a fierce driving rhythm and some scorching guitar solos.

In many ways, Mighty Baby does indeed owe more to the American West Coast bands such as The Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane than it does to its British contemporaries. It rocks, it’s more concise and focused, and it doesn’t cross endlessly and confusingly from one genre to the other. But, just as you think you’ve got it nailed, it will surprise you with a strange lyrical musing or a burst of unexpected sax. The spacy organ of Whiteman will suddenly surge into the mix, ousting the guitars and catapulting the song you’re listening to into some strange arcane land. But unlike with the American bands, there’s no room here for 10-minute instrumental jams or boring drum solos. The songs are what matter, and they are all the more glorious because of this singular focus and drive. Mighty Baby is a rich and textured record, a true slab of adventurous psychedelic music, but one that doesn’t forget to rock, to roll and to rumble. I honestly can’t think of a better compliment!

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