Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Hatfield and the North - The Rotters' Club

Hatfield and the North
The Rotters' Club

Released 1975 on Virgin
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 27/10/2002ce

When Richard Sinclair (ex-Caravan), Phil Miller (ex-Matching Mole and Delivery) and Pip Pyle (ex-Gong and Delivery) were joined by former Uriel and Egg keyboard wizard Dave Stewart to form a band cunningly named to procure free publicity from the Ministry of Transport, a very definite and unique magic ensued. Richard's cousin Dave Sinclair had been the first ivory-tickling incumbent into the fold, but had been tempted back into another Caravan holiday before any recordings had been made. No matter. Stewart brought with him the same unique keyboard sound that had graced two Egg albums (with a third in the pipeline) and formed, with Miller in particular, a relationship of absolute musical precision, with loads of charm to boot. The icing on the cake was provided by the heavenly three part vocal harmonies of Amanda Parsons, Barbara Gaskin and Ann Rosenthal, collectively termed The Northettes, adding a warmth and etherial beauty to an already incomparable group sound. The eponymous first album, released early in 1974, was ample evidence of this: all the best elements of Caravan, Egg and Matching Mole brought together in one delightful package with ample helpings of jaw-dropping dexterity, invention and humour at no extra cost. A faultless 45, 'Let's Eat (Real Soon)' and a track for the excellent Virgin 'V' sampler later that year kept the momentum going. But it was with 'The Rotter's Club' in 1975 that the Hatfields reached their artistic apex. And commercial too - for the album actually grazed the LP charts, despite generally disinterested (and sometimes downright hostile) music press reviews. Well they were wrong. Desperately wrong. 'The Rotters' Club' is a classic of the period, and still sounds fresh today. Allow me to draw your attention to some of its choice moments.

The first thing to point out is that there are visceral thrills aplenty on this record. Like the segued '(Big) John Wayne Socks Psychology On The Jaw'/'Chaos At The Greasy Spoon'/'The Yes No Interlude' section (as ever with the Hatfields, the wacky song titles have little relevance to the music) which starts with a massive, dischordant and doomy fanfare, proceeds through an amazing fuzz/wah wah bass section, and peaks on a passage where free jazz hell breaks loose over an impossibly-disjointed bass and drum riff. Bookending the row is a keyboard lick from Stewart that is as addictive as a Crawford's Cheddar. It's tremendous. And it rocks too.

Admirers of early Caravan will need no reminding of Richard Sinclair's way with a song. As well as being able to tackle complex time signatures and key changes with consumate ease on his Fender Jazz, his almost choir-boy, lightly accented voice had been a priceless asset in delivering pert and witty little songs like 'Golf Girl' and 'Hello Hello'. Well, on 'The Rotters' Club' he's at it again. Indeed, the first thing you hear as soon as the needle hits the groove is his irresistible, oh-so-English vocal on the album's single that never was, 'Share It'. One of two total pop gems on the album written or co-written by Pyle (possibly the most melodically gifted percussionist of all time), it's an absolute belter of a song with a melody all over the place and a cheeky synth solo in the middle that will guarantee a smile. The second Pyle classic, 'Fitter Stoke Has A Bath', is a re-recorded version of the B side of the 'Let's Eat' 45 that has already been raved about in these pages in its own right. Here it's ever so slightly slower, with a few lyrical changes - Pamela is now "looking elegant and writing prose" instead of "making cups of tea and washing clothes", Sinclair's patented singing-while-gargling trick is even more pronounced, and Miller is allowed to extend his final, masterful solo into Carlos Santana-like overdrive. The song then segues, via an awesomely eerie instrumental passage, into the bassist's own compositional masterstroke, the gorgeous 'Didn't Matter Anyway', where his fragile, angelic and resigned vocal is accompanied by the wonderful flute obligato of guest Jimmy Hastings (recently heard on the last Radiohead album, trivia buffs). It's stayed in Sinclair's live set to this day, and rightly so.

Sinclair's other vocal spotlight is halfway through the album's final track, the Dave Stewart masterpiece that is 'Mumps'. Bordered within the reprised, Python-titled 'Your Majesty Is Like A Cream Donut' is a twenty minute epic of keyboard wonderment that would have fitted perfectly onto any of Egg's albums and must have had Emerson and Wakeman peering nervously over their shoulders. The clever-clever lyric confusing letters with words ("I did what U told me to, now I only have I's for U" etc) is more Richard Stilgoe than Sinclair, but it doesn't matter when the tune's as good as this. And this is the secret of the Hatfields for me: the way they can combine ultimate muso-dexterity with terrific, catchy melodies. Check out the section of 'Mumps' called 'Prenut' for illustration, and while you're at it wonder at the Northettes' spacey 'la la' vocals. It's a combination unmatched anywhere in rock music and I can't resist it.

There's also what a 'Classic Rock' writer recently rather disparagingly described as "lounge jazz" in Phil Miller's 'Lounging There Trying' and 'Underdub'. Fie, I say. These are two brief, jazz influenced - but still rock, make no mistake - instrumental showcases for a guitarist of godlike talent who I'd swear manages to cover every fret on his guitar over the pair of them. But they're both irresistable tunes above all else, and make a big contribution to the album's overall uplifting mood. And 'The Rotters' Club' is ultimately a feel good record, despite the presence of some distinctly atonal and un-easy listening passages that provide effective dramatic contrast.

'The Rotters' Club' is another of those life enhancing records that I just couldn't do without. It sits at the very epicentre of the so-called 'Canterbury Scene' that has given this admirer more musical stimulation than any other musical genre. It fuses pop sensitivity, hard rock, jazz, avant garde, and almost Porteresque whimsy into fifty unique and highly enjoyable minutes. It is also, like the best 'Canterbury' sounds, wholly English in sound and feel with not a trace of Americanism to deflower it. It just makes me grin with pleasure from ear to ear every time I hear it. Maybe you need this pleasure too.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to have a bath.

(Update @ 9/8/09: This, along with its eponymous predecessor, has just been re-released in an expert new remaster on Esoteric Records - and, such is the improvement over the old Virgin CD, I hear things therein I've never heard before. Fleshed out with the beautiful, newly unedited 'Halfway Between Heaven And Earth' and a couple of live cuts from the long-unavailable comp 'Afters', it's now even more essential than ever. Don't hesitate!)

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