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With a new nine CD box set retrospective 'The Island Years' that comprises their entire history from 1967 to 1974, Keith How examines the career of prog rock act, Spooky Tooth
ART’s 'Supernatural Fairy Tales' passed me by in the late 1960’s haze, and when I came across a fledgling Spooky Tooth laying down a heavy progressive sound at a small venue near my house I was not aware that they had evolved from ART.
Island Records' groundbreaking sampler 'You Can All Join In' featured an array of talented bands who were beginning to find new forms of expression, the likes of which we may never experience again. Spooky Tooth found themseves sitting alongside Traffic, Jethro Tull and Free. It was a fantastic period of musical history. So does a rather sumptuous nine CD investigation of one of the lesser known Island bands warrant its existence?
As with most box sets there are masses of alternate takes, A and B sides , and mono and stereo mixes. Gloriously 'Supernatural Fairy Tales' is the starting point with six additional unreleased stereo mixes from Abbey Road. ART, previously a beat combo called the V.I.P.s, released 'Supernatural Fairy Tales'. Although now regarded as essential, it seeemed to slip away mainly undiscovered in the wake of 'Sgt Pepper'a Lonely Hearts Club Band'. Hints of Spooky Tooth’s progressive sound are hidden away in the title track of 'Supernatural Fairy Tales', and the arrival of American keyboard player and vocalist Gary Wright found ART evolving into Spooky Tooth.
1968 saw the release of 'Its All About' where the band seem to be forging their new identity and finding their feet. 'Society’s Child', a Janis Ian cover, kicks thngs off as a fledgling Tooth seem to search for identity. A rock feel is symbolic of the early prog rock days.
‘Spooky Two', released in 1969, is bluesier and rockier than its predecessor. Confident and strong, it features 'Better By You, Better Than Me', which was later covered by Judas Priest. 'Two' is considered by many to be their best album and raised the band’s profile considerably.
In the spirit of the times and reflecting the desire for progression and experimentation, Spooky Tooth collaborated with French composer Pierre Henry to create 'Ceremony'. Taking the form of a church service, 'Ceremony' seems way ahead of its time. Heavier and darker than the 13th Floor Elevators' 'Mass', it is for 1970 a very brave move and a Gothic masterpiece. 'Ceremony' seems to rise from some forgotten cathedral cloister where the priest and congregation, bound by guilt, seek forgiveness. Scary !
Spooky Tooth suffered from numerous line-up changes, and after 'Ceremony' and in keeping with their penchant for reworking covers 'The Last Puff' breaks open your head with the heaviest version of 'I am the Walrus' ever heard. Whereas 'Ceremony' was challenging, 'The Last Puff' is more diverse and, including Elton John’s Son of Your Father' has a more commercial feel about it.
'The Last Puff' proved to be exactly that, and after a rather chequered existence the band broke up.
Spooky Tooth returned in 1972 with Gary Wright seemingly taking a leading roll with a new line up. 'You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw’ is surprisingly strong with an almost gospel feel, and the follow-up 'Witness' continues in the same vein being bluesy and soulful with the odd excursion into middle of the road territory.
'Witness' appeared full of passion and creativity again, and is a radio friendly album with some excellent songs. 'Wings of My Heart' is a soaring ballad while 'Pyramid' is an epic progressive piece.
1974 saw the release of 'The Mirror'. It is a seamless rock album commercial in both production and intent and, despite screaming guitar, intense vocals and some real punch, seems lacking in ideas, but in fact signalled the second coming of Spooky Tooth as an F.M. friendly act. 'Hell or High Water' and 'Fantasy Satisfier' were superb compositions that highlighted the creative spark, but sadly 'The Mirror' signalled the end for Spooky Tooth. Gary Wright commented that he was burned out. The constant line-up problems had taken its toll on the band.
Included in the box set is 'Live in Germany 1973' which really gives you the best of what Spooky Tooth were all about as a quality, inventive heavy progressive rock. 'I am the Walrus' is, as you might expect, awesome but the whole set is powerful, heady and really captures classic Spooky Tooth at their best.
To the casual passer by 'The Island Years' might seem slightly irrelevant today, but the informative accompanying book is really well put together. It is a fitting tribute to a truly underground band that featured an outstanding roster of musicians - Mike Harrison, Greg Ridley, Luther Grosvenor, Mike Kellie and, of course, Gary Wright - to name a few.
British rock and Island label archivists and collecters will find this package indispensable, and the curious will find much to intrigue and delight them.