Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Various Artists - Nice Enough To Eat

Various Artists
Nice Enough To Eat

Released 1969 on Island
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 20/08/2002ce

Being the typically cash-strapped teenager that I was in the 1970's, my LP buying had to be highly selective. The £2.50+ it took to buy the average album took some time to accumulate, longer than my hunger for new sounds usually allowed. And so, like many of my contemporaries, I came to relish the odd bargains that were around. 'The Faust Tapes', Gong's 'Camembert Electrique', Egg's 'Civil Surface' and Crimson's 'Earthbound' were all good or great records that could be bought for less, or not much more than, a quid. Even better were the handful of cool sampler LPs that remained from the turn of the previous decade. And Island's 'Nice Enough To Eat' was the best of the lot. It's twelve tracks collectively comprised a snapshot of all that was great (and some of what sucked) about the British prog-rock scene at the end of the sixties. Some of the artists featured thereon achieved true greatness if not fame and fortune. But here they sat in a deliciously uneasy equilibrium with compatriots of lesser commercial or artistic worth. And the result was a tremendously varied hotch-potch of standards and styles that hung together perfectly on one dirt-cheap album. Allow me, please, to take you on a guided tour of this pink-labelled bargain of yesteryear.

'Cajun Woman' by the Denny-era Fairport Convention is a rock and roll meets country ceilidh that cannot fail to raise a smile and set the foot-a-tapping. Hardly representative of the delightfully-downer 'Unhalfbricking' album from which it is extracted, but a fine opener for the compilation nonetheless. It's followed by 'At The Crossroads' from the eponymous first Mott The Hoople LP, where Ian Hunter isn't so much influenced by Dylan as being actively taken over by him. No matter, because it's a great big beauty of a ballad with a stratospheric chorus that hits warp intensity in its long fade out. Great Guy Stevens' production job too.

Spooky Tooth's 'Better By You, Better Than Me' is built around a terrifically simple plodding riff and has big, intense crescendi at the end of every verse. It was criminally covered as a straight heavy metal number by Judas Priest a decade later, being the track that landed the Brummy bummers in deep water for alleged Satan-infected subliminal messages. No such nonsense with the original, I'm glad to say. The album represented, 'Spooky Two', is a classic of the period that deserves a review all to itself on these pages. Anybody?

Jethro Tull's monstrously fine 'Stand Up' album really needs no advertisement here. But it's sampled on 'Nice Enough To Eat' with 'We Used To Know', a magnificently morose reminiscence of hard-up days gone by, built around a chord sequence suspiciously similar to that used by the Eagles for 'Hotel California'. No question as to which is the better song. 'We Used To Know' is one of Ian Anderson's best ever compositions with the added bonus of then new-recruit Martin Barre on blistering form. Worth the price of the album alone. It's followed by 'Woman' from Free's second, self-named album, with Paul Rodgers' disgustingly deranged vocal atop a Fraser/Kossoff riff as catchy as ebola. What an injustice that after two albums of songs as good as this it took the brain-numbing 'All Right Now' to break Free into the big time.

Side One ends with the record's lost diamond: Heavy Jelly's 'I Keep Singing That Same Old Song'. This perfect slice of prog mayhem was a long, long, one-off single by a north east-based bunch of heads (including future Blockheads and Attractions, trivia buffs) previously trading as Skip Bifferty but here congregated and controlled by the great lost (in every sense of the term) producer Guy Stevens. It's an awesomely heavy, powerful song with a gargantuan emotive chorus and the greatest ever guitar lick repeated a thousand times while all hell breaks loose around it. Everybody involved just rips out their heart and soul for their art here. If you've never heard this track before, stop at nothing until you've put that right. It's rock and roll at its spine-tingling, theraputic best, leaving you emotionally and physically drained. Simply perfect; naah, it's better than that. It's 25 carat hyperprog gold.

Side Two kicks off with Jack Lancaster's double sax blasting into 'Sing Me A Song That I Know', Blodwyn Pig at their frenetic best. An almighty racket of sound from their juicy 'Ahead Rings Out' debut (separate review pending!), with the wonderfully strained vocals of future insurance salesman Mick Abrahams. Traffic's '40,000 Headmen' is the perfect antithesis of the Pig's organised chaos, a spooky, introspective trip of hidden power and threat, with masterful flute playing from the late Chris Wood and Steve Winwood at his majesterial best. And the next track is nothing less significant and wonderful than Nick Drake's stunning 'Time Has Told Me', the quiet sublimity of which you must know already. It's presence here adds welcome calm and balm to the heady mix of the album. Wonderful, like all of 'Five Leaves Left'.

And then, out of the tranquility and ambience comes...the riff from Hell. The scariest, wickedest, baddest riff before Sabbath with cybernaut vocals intoning the onslaught of armageddon. A horrible, horrible noise like nothing else before it. But then, you've heard '21st Century Schizoid Man' before. All that needs to be said is that this is where I heard King Crimson for the first time and, now knowing and loving most of their vast output, I still get an almighty rush from hearing THIS song in the context of THIS record, especially for its almost comical contrast with its neighbouring tracks. Because Quintessence's 'Gungamai' that follows is a piece of riding-the-waves-of -hip-Hindu pseudo-ethnic bollocks that couldn't better show how good the rest of the album is. By a million miles the most dated and embarrassing track here, it actually makes me appreciate how good Cornershop are now.

The quaintest, most joyous sound on the album comes last. 'Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal' by Dr Strangely Strange is a little gem of tweeness and innocence by a (now highly-collectable) combo obviously too much in awe of the Incredible String Band. It features a melody very akin to Rod Clements' 'Meet Me On The Corner' and gloriously off-key recorder playing (awful instrument, I know - but it sounds just right here). Hear it, love it, cherish it, but don't do as I did and lash out big moolah on the painfully rare 'Kip Of The Serenes' album from which it comes. This is by far the best song on that album. Here, it's a lovely restrained end to a waywardly disperate collection of songs.

'Nice Enough To Eat' was wholly successful in its aim of introducing this punter to the hidden (and not so hidden) joys of the early Island catalogue. Over the years I hungrily acquired every one of the albums represented (except Quintessence - ugh) and subsequently got heavily into the likes of Crimson, Tull, Traffic and Nick Drake. As such, this sampler was a vital text book for my musical education. But more than that, it was, and is, a damn fine collection of (mostly) great tracks from a unnervingly creative period in the history of British rock. Hunt down a copy at a charity shop or car boot sale - look for the blue cover with all the bands named in alphabet candy - for a couple of quid, tops. Avoid the CD issue that couples it with Island's preceding, equally fine 'You Can All Join In' sampler unless you can tolerate the unforgivable (contractual?) omissions of 'Schizoid Man' and 'We Used To Know'.

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