Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Spooky Tooth—
Spooky Two


Released 1969 on Island
The Seth Man, November 2013ce
“A bit of advice from Jimmy M.: Maximum cycle characteristics and frequency response at high decibel level have been set according to standards suggested in the GUY STEVENS Producer Manual, chart R-357, in index, page 304. These recommended standards were compiled by the same authority having recently measured audible damage created by supersonic aircraft -- if for any reason you do not agree with the standards, turn it up.”
- Liner notes to The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” (1971)


Even as a long-time adherent of Guy Stevens, I never agreed with the abovementioned standards and chose instead to turn it up on every possible occasion. A perfect example of said occasion is “Spooky Two”-- especially since Jimmy Miller (the author of the advice dispensed above) produced the album and Guy Stevens (the group’s main mentor) had produced several of Spooky Tooth’s studio efforts years before the core group of musicians took on the name. But most of all, because Spooky Tooth tore it up all over “Spooky Two” in such a confident and consistent manner that it’s a blast and a half -- Make that three blasts, at twice the volume.

Prior to Spooky Tooth, the quartet of Mike Harrison (vocals, keyboards), Luther Grosvenor (guitar), Greg Ridley (bass) and Mike Kellie (drums) comprised the final line-up of Cumbrian R&B group The VIPs, which then mutated into Art. This short-lived group would release only one LP as well as appearing as the uncredited backing band on the first Hapshash And The Coloured Coat album. But once American expatriate Gary Wright joined the quartet as keyboardist, vocalist and primary composer,[1]Spooky Tooth was born as a dual keyboard-driven group who played it simple, played it hard and hammered out every ounce of feeling with each vocalised expression, rhythmic phrase and well-placed riff. Ultimately, the primary underlining influence on “Spooky Two” was soul music -- represented by the arrangements made around the strength of the two vocalists while flashes of gospel, country, distorted blues and assorted post-psychedelic elements wove around and combined together in a variety and consistency that was one of enduring Rock. It wasn’t just eclectic for eclecticism’s sake, but rather: an expansion outward from their previous R&B, soul, and psychedelic experiences into something else. During that Progressive Rock netherzone of 1969, the search was on for something new (whatever form that might take) but whatever it was, it definitely had keyboards and Spooky Two had two of ‘em: a Hammond organ manned by Gary Wright and a Baldwin electric harpsichord worked by Mike Harrison. Both of them had fantastic voices and with the backing of one brilliant guitarist and a solid rhythm section, you can feel the burning of their quest in their practical talents of musical creation while the visionary production of Jimmy M. ably captured its rampant dynamics in all its immediacy.

Instilled with the spirit of shorter days, longer nights and the chillier climes of impending winter, “Spooky Two” kicks off with the eternally autumnal “Waitin’ For The Wind.” This stellar opener begins with the slow burning-ness of starkly unaccompanied and even drum paces that soon get double tracked until the entry of Wright’s icy gusts of overdriven Hammond organ cuts in to hover above all ominously dark until Mike Harrison’s voicings not only brace against the storm, but stand their ground in defiance and cut through it all with great bellowing force. Grosvenor’s guitar distortion lands squarely only in the chorus to crazily shore it up and tie knots into Wright’s ever-tightening organ patterns simultaneously. Moody AND hard-nosed as hell at the same time, “Waitin’ On The Wind” fires on all cylinders as the group keep their collective heads down and power through the tempest in their minds that also surrounds them.

The mood shifts with the entry of a pair of Kellie/Wright compositions, “Feelin’ Bad” and “I’ve Got Enough Heartaches.” These two acoustically-backed tracks are the only point on “Spooky Two” where any two songs bear even a passing resemblance to each other. The former is rousing while the more sedate latter, recorded at Sunset Sound Studios, Los Angeles, found an auxiliary of backing vocalists that included Joe Cocker alongside Sue and Sunny (the sister team of Yvonne and Heather Wheatman) ably assisting Harrison’s belted-out vocals with swaying gospelisations.[2]

Excepting this pair of gospel-infused breakaways that “fill tomorrow’s empty space,” the effortlessly shifting characteristics of “Spooky Two” continue with the bludgeoning “Evil Woman.” A version released in 1968 by Lou Rawls was the basis for this sprawling, finger-pointing-at-the-more-daemonic-ranks-of-the-fairer-sex epic. But unlike the original, Spooky Tooth pumped up their version to more than three times in length, laid it on sheets of stabbing Hammond organ, hard guitar riffing and added bombastic vocal exchanges while the rest of the band beat the track into the ground senselessly. The absolute highlights are two proto-metal guitar solos by Luther Grosvenor and both times they’re played with such abandon and conviction that it’s undeniably an early emergence of the Hard Rock Idiom rising. Against Grosvenor’s inflammatory spraying of riffage, Kellie’s thundering authority and Ridley’s bass lines boisterously fanning the flames, Harrison’s Cumbrian cater-wailing calling trading off with Wright’s unfaltering falsetto responses combines into something so unearthly and bizarre that it makes you want to call the fire brigade, a psychiatrist or just laugh at loud because it’s the most ridiculously incendiary and craziest moment of the album. It’s pummelling in its execution, and trebled so with the great length(s) with which the group go to expand it beyond a mere soul cover and into something more like a storming and tormented dark fortnight of the soul. After near-infinite reiterations of the word ‘woman’ barked, screeched and yammered out in nearly every conceivably emotionally-charged fashion, an extended song-ending flourish signifies that the song -- and with its laundry list of accusations -- along with side one, is over. Whew.

Side two is entirely taken up with compositions by Gary Wright and showcases his talents as a songwriter with command of varying styles. The eerie “Lost In My Dream”[3]opens with ethereal atmospheric effects into a low, dirge-like crawl. Grosvenor’s guitar is held in reserve reverb to the back wall while Harrison’s vocals continue their somnambulistic climb as watchful tom-toms resound over pulsating bass. As Harrison testifies to his nightmare imprisonment, everything begins to build until a wordless and bombastically charged “Bolero”-like upsurge enters to make it all build even higher...and ever higher than that once a vocal choir resounds harmonically together with Wright’s sustained organ. It fades...then returns to build back up again like a restless night’s sleep that feels like no release is in sight until the sweet relief of the fade of the final harmonising choir.

The best known track of the album, “That Was Only Yesterday,” enters with a harmonica motif about as poignantly Toots Thielemans as it gets in Rock while the chorus always-always-ALWAYS got me thinking about this track and Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright?” as predating linkages to The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Not only did Jimmy Miller produce all three but Glyn Johns -- younger brother of Andy Johns, engineer on “Spooky Two” -- produced Steve Miller Band’s “Your Saving Grace” album, resulting in the title track that cops the same vibe on the chorus. After the finish of this country-flavoured jaunt, the heaviness of “Better By You, Better Than Me” enters to lower the mood, turn down the lights and scrape over the barest flagstone floor. Raw-edged guitar rhythm tippy-toes in the spotlight until the chorus gives all the quietude so meticulously created the old heave-ho when extended organ fills supported by sole acoustic guitar strums, deftly applied drums shoot up to relentlessly send Harrison’s distraught pleas sky high over and over again...Probably way beyond the fade-out.

The closing track of the album comes in the oddly uplifting ode of resignation in the face of inevitable, “Hangman Hang My Shell On A Tree.” It’s freedom felt at the end of a rope, so how fucking desperate is that? Despite this, the arrangement is nearly swallowed whole by a repeating vocal chorus/sea chanty/sing-along of supreme buoyancy. As fuzz guitar roars quietly in the undertow of this brilliant wake, the chanting continues onwards into tomorrow as the door of destiny opens and spills blinding light across the threshold... and beyond.

I don’t know how, either. But I do know that “Spooky Two” is truly the Odinist Island pink eye of forever, unblinking in dynamic power. So...turn it up.


FOOTNOTES:
  1. Wright hailed from Cresskill, New Jersey, and in his teens had first met Jimmy Miller performing in a band at a nearby bar. Half a decade later, Wright would find himself in a London studio with Miller behind the glass producing Spooky Tooth’s first album, “It’s All About.”
  2. According to a later recollection by Mike Harrison, Steve Winwood played uncredited piano on “I’ve Got Enough Heartaches.” In turn, Mike Kellie would later contribute uncredited drumming to Traffic’s “Rainmaker” several years later on “Low Spark Of The High-Heeled Boys.”
  3. In a 1979 interview with Charles Shaar Murray for the NME, Guy Stevens stated: “The first thing I actually produced was with Spooky Tooth. It was called ‘In A Dream’ and it built up. All my records build up. Have you noticed that?” Although “In A Dream” was the B-side of the last single that The V.I.P.’s recorded for Island and bore a Guy Stevens production credit, I strongly suspect Stevens may have meant Spooky Tooth’s similarly entitled “Lost In My Dream” instead. Because even though The V.I.P.’s had yet to mutate in Art (and in turn, Spooky Tooth), “In My Dream” doesn’t build nearly as much as “Lost In A Dream” by Spooky Tooth does – and it does so repeatedly. Also, its reverbed production differs greatly from the rest of the contents of “Spooky Two”-- just as the two tracks Stevens produced on “John Barleycorn Must Die” did (“Stranger To Himself” and “Every Mother’s Son.”) It’s for these reasons “Lost In My Dream” may have very well been produced and directed by Stevens himself -- despite the fact his only credit printed anywhere on the album was for its sleeve design.