Greatness, Definitely; Masterpiece, Maybe
To rock fans with a penchant for the obscure, Terry Reid is a name that, when invoked, is guaranteed to produce blank stares or shrugged shoulders, and secure your place as a card carrying member of the hipoisie. Born in England 54 years ago, Reid’s claim to fame is as a rock and roll footnote—the guy who turned down the lead vocalist spot in Led Zeppelin. Legend has it that not only did Reid politely decline Jimmy Page’s offer, he also recommended Robert Plant for the gig. And despite a career firmly positioned beneath the horizon of recognition, Reid has never complained about passing up such a potentially lucrative opportunity.
To be aghast he did such a thing is to miss the larger point. Two records into a promising solo career, Reid didn’t want to muck it up by joining a band (As for whether or not Zep would have been as popular without Plant, that’s fruitless speculation). Supervised by British pop producer/svengali Mickie Most (who passed away earlier this year) Reid’s 1968 debut Bang, Bang You’re Terry Reid, and ‘69’s eponymous follow-up tried too hard to sell him as a pop star. Growing increasingly uncomfortable with Most’s fast buck tunnel vision and needing an outlet for his new, decidedly less commercial songs, Reid sought to terminate his contract with Most, something that would prevent him from recording for three years.
Enter Atlantic records majordomo Ahmet Ertegun (who knows a thing or two about turning a fast buck). After dealing with Most, he signed Reid, immediately hooking him up with gifted in-house producer/engineer Tom Dowd, who encouraged him to recut some of the tracks he recorded in England with producer Eddie Offord (Yes, ELP). The resulting effort, simply and elegantly titled River, was released in 1973 and despite a serious push by Atlantic to position Reid among the growing pantheon of singer/songwriters, it vanished almost as quickly as it appeared. But we were so much older then, we’re younger than that now, and it is our good fortune that River has been reissued. Is it a masterpiece? Quite frankly, I haven’t lived with it long enough to make that claim with any certainty; its greatness, however, is undeniable.
A cursory listen to Terry Reid makes it easy to understand why Page was so taken with his voice: a strong, supple, intimate tenor capable of teasing out every nuance of a lyric (done to great effect on the opening track “Dean”), or stretching syllables to the breaking point. Deftly interpolating folk and blues with samba, bossa nova, and tropicalia, Reid sings with unwavering confidence, taking numerous vocal risks (e.g., jumping octaves, slurring words, changing the meter, using phrasing that sounds wholly improvised) that occasionally produce an imperfect note, but more than make up for it in passion, exuberance, and daring.
Teaming Reid with Tom Dowd was inspired. As one who understood the artistic impulses of his performers as well as any producer in the history of American popular music, Dowd wisely gave Reid enormous creative latitude. This is significant insofar as the songs on River don’t possess the kind of mawkish obviousness and paint-by-numbers linearity that made so many ‘70s singer/songwriters sound like a bunch of whiny narcissists. There’s a spontaneity to this record, as if Reid was making up the songs on the spot—the improvisatory feel being another one of River‘s many endearing qualities—and Dowd was there to provide a sympathetic cushion for the shifting sonic textures, without resorting to perfectionism or numerous retakes (e.g., during David Lindley’s—as in Jackson Browne’s longtime sideman—guitar solo on “Dean” Reid coughs audibly not once, but twice). River is all about capturing the moment and Dowd does so in warm analog sound, luxuriously lo-fi before the term was hijacked by indie rock elitists.
Singling out individual tracks is an exercise in futility in that River (clocking in at just under 40 minutes) is gloriously whole in a manner not unlike Tim Buckley’s Lorca, John Martyn’s Solid Air, and Van Morrison’s Saint Dominic’s Preview. Pardon the pun, but there’s a flow here, as one track easily, but never lazily, spills into the next. Still, if forced to choose one track that would make you sit up and say “more,” it would be “Dream”. Accompanied only by Reid’s acoustic guitar, the song’s shambling intro doesn’t prepare you for Reid’s murmured melancholy opening couplet, “If I had a thousand dreams about you / I’d have a thousand dreams that would turn blue / Anyway”. Part homage to Van Morrison, it’s a blissful roller coaster of plangent folk blues that most writers would give their eyeteeth to render so revealingly.
So many, myself included, missed this treasure the first time around, but in the dialogic world of pop music where every genre (and many performers) eventually have their homecoming day, reissues allow us to rectify past mistakes. Here’s your chance. Don’t screw it up.