It may sound strange to say that this anthology of music recorded between 1968 and 1972 took me back to the 1990s, but Grapefruit Records’ David Wells has compiled the kind of collection that was once so common during what we might call “the golden age of the CD box set” that occurred during that final decade of the millennium, just before the download revolution. Sets like Rhino’s expanded Nuggets anthologies opened up a world of unknown sounds and performers to curious music fans. Oftentimes, too, the expansive liner notes in the accompanying booklets were as valuable as the songs themselves in guiding listeners to new discoveries.
The three-CD I’m a Freak Baby: A Journey Through the British Heavy Psych and Hard Rock Underground Scene: 1968-72 is just such an anthology that introduces listeners to an important and too-often overlooked transition period in UK rock. The songs and performers here bridge the period between the congruent movements of the British folk revival and psychedelic scene and what would develop into the first wave of British heavy metal along with the progressive movement. There are even early echoes of what would become punk (or stirrings of why the punk movement became necessary) to be found here.
As Wells clarifies in his excellent liner notes, the bands represented here, unlike those of the folk revival and early psychedelic scenes, were comprised mostly of working class kids who were seeking sounds that supplied “a visceral rather than a cerebral impact”, which is not to say that this music is any less intelligent. Though, of course, many critics were slow to acknowledge the emotional and intellectual nuances of these guttural musings, which might be gathered under the general banner of stoner rock. Wells paints a picture of a “teenage wasteland” for working class British youth and amplifies the importance that this music played for its artists and listeners.
One of the first impressions of the collection is the extent to which Black Sabbath serves as an influence to so many of the bands, which isn’t surprising when one recalls that critic Jim DeRegotis once identified Master of Reality as a foundational stoner rock record. There are ample elements of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in evidence here as well, with a collection of echoes from all over the UK sound map of the preceding decade. The dominant focus here, though, is volume, with the late ’60s ubiquity of the Marshall stack guiding the collective muse.
Most of the lead figures in the scene are here, with the collection offering deep cuts from Deep Purple, Uriah Heap, the Yardbirds, Hawkwind (in their early Hawkwind Zoo incarnation), and Fleetwood Mac, with one of the final recordings featuring the doomed Peter Green. But with a set like this, the deepest joy is in discovering the obscure and previously unheard performers of the time, the followers who simultaneously kicked the growing sound forward.
The criminally overlooked Stray open the set with “All in Your Mind”, which evokes comparison to Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of Your Mind” and might even be the better song. The hard driving bass and space-age guitar solo gives way to a ponderous, vaguely trippy middle section, offering ample preview of what’s to come over the course of the set’s three CDs. Among highlights too numerous to name, the Deviant’s “Coming Home” is a slogging, barely legal take on Them’s “Gloria”, sounding like Ozzy Osbourne doing a slurred Van Morrison impersonation. Stack Waddy offers an over-the-top Captain Beefheart-inspired take on Bo Diddley’s “Bring It to Jerome”. Factory’s “Time Machine” mixes an opening riff borrowed from the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” with the most unhinged vocal performance this side of the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”. Egor’s “Street” is flawed by muddy sound, but considering that it was transferred from one of the only four copies of the album that band members ever saw, an unscrupulous producer absconding with all other materials and funds, it’s an amazing relic of a powerhouse band.
Many of the tracks cross into the five-minute and beyond realm of psych-jams which, can start to weigh down after a while (there’s four hours of music spread over the three CDs, after all). Listening to so many extended jams, it becomes obvious why the punk explosion was necessary. This stuff is plenty loud, what punk brought back was brevity and a pop sensibility that the more progressing-leaning among these tracks lack. But that’s not to denigrate. Lumbering bass, odd time changes, etc., are defining elements of this genre, which will alternately attract or repulse listeners. This is a set built for the former, but which can offer ample counterpoint to those of the latter taste and should win many over.
I’m a Freak Baby! is a highly enjoyable set of music, some of it sublime, some silly, all of it taking the piss out of any questions regarding high art. It belongs in the library of anyone with a deep affinity for psychedelia, hard rock, or heavy metal. Grapefruit Records has produced an unapologetic collection of stoner rock that will fill any late-night party with its big bottom sound.