Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Sassafras - Wheelin' And Dealin'

Wheelin' And Dealin'

Released 1975 on Chrysalis
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 05/10/2002ce

Fads and fashions come and go. We've all got those records in our collections that we had to get at the time. We dug them, or thought we did, because they were the records to be into, or maybe they weren't and we just wanted to be different. In time, though, we move on. And inevitably, a fair amount of albums and singles we once held so dear become inessential, unwanted or even, in a select few cases, rampantly disliked. People change, and so do their tastes. And so the records that stay with us through all life's ups and downs become very special indeed. They are the records that fill our heads and hearts permanently, irrespective of their hipness, critical standing, or whether they look cool on our shelves. They are, as Joolio would have it, true 'soundtracks to our lives'.

That cheap attempt at retro philosophy is my crass way of introducing a record by a band that were so terminally unhip and unsung that I'd venture to suggest a high proportion of the good people reading this have never heard of them. I'd seen Sassafras on The Old Grey Whistle Test doing a fair Status Quo impersonation and heard a couple of tracks by them on the 'Over The Rainbow' live album that documented the final concert of that venerable venue's first phase in 1975. They sounded okay. Okay enough to risk 75p on their second album anyway. The bargain bins of 70's record shops had so much to answer for. And that 75p proved extremely well spent. I loved 'Wheelin' and Dealin' through punk, new wave, Two Tone, metal, thrash, indie, grunge, and all the other sounds and scenes that came, and mostly went, in and out of my life. And I love it now. Try to take it away from me and I won't be responsible for my actions.

So here it is. I'm playing it for you now. Listen to the title track that starts the album. I know what you're thinking - sub Quo ramalama; nothing to write home about. But you're wrong. 'Wheelin' and Dealin'' is an exceptionally melodic, driving boogie with spot-on harmony vocals, twin lead guitar work that puts the mighty Wishbone Ash to shame, and an unexpected key change for the final verse that just does it for me every time. Believe me, Quo would have killed to have written a rocker as good as this. And had Sassafras enjoyed the kind of record company support that Quo did, they'd have had a monster hit on their hands with this one. But the injustice and false hopes of the music biz are what inspired the song in the first place. Play it again. I guarantee you'll like it more. By the third play you'll be its prisoner. It has a twin at the beginning of side two in 'Peanut Man' which is even better. But there is far more to this album than heads down rock.

'Highway Skies' is simply the best cruising song ever to hit plastic. Built around a fabulously quirky twin guitar lick, it has a slightly moody, airy verse and a catchy, upifting "I wanna be with you/I'd search the earth just to be with you" chorus which will induce permanent Parkinson's into your feet. And, at its centre, the master-stroke: the sweetest, most life-enhancing solo ever carressed from a Les Paul over a delicious decending chord passage. The way the final chorus evolves into an almost overture-like ending is the icing on an already exquisite cake: in short, rock songwriting at its very best. It's immediate successor, 'Hamburg Song', is every bit as good. Again, a laid back verse leads into a chorus of absolute sunshine. And again, the dreamy guitar solos at the heart of the track remind you of just why guitar pickups were invented. I nominate Dai Shell and Ralph Evans as THE FINEST HARMONY LEAD GUITARISTS IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash? Amateurs. And I've said nothing yet about Terry Bennett, one of the most underrated rock vocalists this island has ever produced, who dominates the whole album with a voice of tenderness and power in equal measure.

'Box Car Hobo' has a mighty brass arrangement that fills out the already beefy Sassafras sound to awesome levels. It's a shining, minor-keyed gem of a song with terrific use of dynamics but not a hint of prog pomposity. 'Moonshine' is Sassafras gone country: a foot-tappin' and clod-hoppin' humdinger of a ditty with Bennett's ironic vocals to the fore. His deliberate move off-key as he sings "My brain is way out of tune" will make you laugh out loud every time. 'Soul Destroyer' is a West Coast styled rocker in Marshall Tucker vein, with more irresistible harmony guitar wonderments. And at the centre of side two comes the album's longest and grandest track, a highly inventive take on Neil Young's 'Ohio' that frames the song within a contender for the greatest boogie riff ever composed and a cheeky nod towards 'You Really Got Me' near the end. Shell and Evans' lengthy alternate solos in the middle of the song are so damned emotive and heartfelt that I could have them played at my funeral. A truly inspired cover version that actually improves on the original, even if Bennett could never match the fragile vocal quality of its creator.

Sassafras were never a startlingly original combo. They wore their West Coast and Southern Boogie influences on their sleeve. Their three albums will remind you at various times of the Allmans, Lynryd Skynyrd, Poco, Blood Sweat and Tears, even the bloody Eagles (Gawd help us!) among many others. But, and it's a big but, they actually manage to outdo all of their antecedents with style, panache and downright soul here. Not bad for a bunch of no-hopers from Wales who never enjoyed a hint of critical or commercial acclaim. I adore 'Wheelin' and Dealin'' to distraction. It hasn't radically changed my life, but it's made it a whole lot nicer. One day it may get a CD release* and improve your life too. I hope so. To hell with hipness, fads and fashions - let's boogie!

(*Hot news update: finally reissued on CD in a value for money 2-for-1 package with the almost-as-good follow up, 'Riding High', on Gott Records in October 2005, though they've included a different version of the title track and an unnecessary remix of 'Box Car Hobo' in place of the originals. Unfortunately the author of the accompanying booklet quotes the above review in the name of Julian Cope, who may not be over-chuffed at being credited with a love for an uncool Welsh boogie band of the immediate pre-punk era! Sorry Drude - I wasn't consulted!)

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