Wednesday, November 11, 2015

THEM: "The Happy Tiger Years" (1970-71)

As noted before, I didn't have much knowledge about Them's ever-changing lineups, let alone how far they'd continued on after Van Morrison left the band. They had a pair of albums on Capitol's Tower label, where they'd relocated to Texas, and then based themselves out of LA, becoming a West Coast psychedelic band. They'd had essentially the same lineup from when Van left, only with a new frontman, Kenny McDowell.

Scouring through a vintage-vinyl catalog, I noticed a couple of entries for a couple more of their albums on some label I'd never heard of called Happy Tiger (sounds really official, doesn't it?). Both albums were described as having "the heaviest snarling fuzz ever", and "sounding like an offspring of early Who and MC5". Wow, what could these sound like?

Sometime in the summer of 2000, I came across the first of the two Happy Tiger albums, this being the self-titled one, released in 1970 or so. Weird cover, with what looked like a dead girl floating over some sort of symbolic mish-mash of British and American themes, regardless of the fact that Them were from Ireland...and with the band's name spelled out above it all in purple shaving foam!

The band consisted of longtime bassist Alan Henderson, and session guitarist Jerry Cole on guitars and vocals. The two of them are credited as being the "rhythm section", but maybe they were the ones doing all the rattling percussion on some of the songs. Further listening, and a little research shows that Hal Blaine was the drummer on these sessions, plus contributions by Jack Nietzsche (piano) and Ry Cooder (guitars), among some others.

The first thing you notice is how low-budget the production and recording qualities are. Lots of fuzz-tone guitar, as promised, but the lyrics to the opening song (Cole's own "I Keep Singing") leave much to be desired ("C'mon and get some feelin'...let's get higher than the ceiling!"). Yet another "Gloria" re-write follows, but this time as a Charlie Rich tune by the name of "Lonely Weekends", with Cole trying hard as he can to belt it out like Van once did, and failing miserably. "Take A Little Time" comes next, with endless repetition of the chorus, ans thankfully fades out after a bit.

Now, it starts getting good, with some heavy fuzz tone on rockers like "You Got Me Good", "Jo-Ann" and "Memphis Lady" (another Cole original), and Alan really struts his stuff on "Jo-Ann". After a couple of dead-end covers of "In The Midnight Hour" and Nobody Cares", we get treated to a cover of the Stones' "I Am Waiting" (from the Aftermath album), but with Alan on lead vocals for this one. He had a pretty good voice...maybe he should have been the band's singer, he could have pulled it off quite well. The album ends with a cover of "Just A Little", made famous by the Beau Brummels, which also fades out rather quickly.

Not much is known about the band during this period, like if they did any gigs or toured. Indeed, they seemed to be more of a recording project than an actual band. Somehow, they managed to pull together for one more album, Them In Reality, in 1971, this time as a power-trio with Alan Henderson on bass, and former Texas band Kitchen Cinq members, guitarist Jim Parker, and drummer John Stark. The album cover is rather cheesy, with a group photo on the front (in which they sort of remind me of The Nice), and individual in-the-studio shots on the back.

The album opens with a loud, sloppy, trashy medley of "Gloria" and "Baby Please Don't Go". Sounds like they were going for a garage-rock sound here, with a heavy James Gang influence, especially when they clam up and start jamming. This was such a low-budget production that no-one could bother with fixing a couple of loud tape-warps and drop-outs toward the end of the medley, but...oh well, it just adds to the fun.

After a Paul Williams tune, "Laugh", the rest of the album consists of all-original tunes by Parker and Stark. I can only describe them as West Coast hippie-rock, with a kind of CSN&Y feel on the backing vocals. One song, "Let My Song Through", kicks off with a riff that will remind you of "Sweet Home Alabama", three years before that one was recorded...maybe Skynyrd copped it from here. The remaining tunes aren't bad, kind of laid-back feeling, with some solid drumming and good distorted guitar to be heard, save for the final cut "Can You Believe", done on a sole acoustic guitar and reverbed vocals.

That seemed to be it for Them after its release. I heard an interesting story during a visit to Golden Oldies, where I told Jeff about finding this one, and he tole me about a guy who once came into the store with a box full of sealed copies of this very album. Seems he had been a local concert promoter back in the '60s and '70s, and he tried to get the band to do some shows up in the area, but they were running into some legal trouble regarding use of the name "Them", and so it never happened.

The two albums have been put on CD, though possibly in quasi-bootleg form. My copy has both of them on one CD, on the Synton label, but nothing else in the way of great mastering, or any liner notes, just reproductions of the covers. I've also seem them on CD as individual CD's, but if they were remastered in any way, I have no idea. It was just very cool to see them on CD, if only for a while, as they weren't in print very long.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

THEM: "The Story Of Them" (1997)

This showed up at the house one day in April of 1998, something I'd never seen or knew was out. Dad had a battered copy of their first album, which I honestly had never gotten around to listening to, but I always liked the picture on the front cover. I remember seeing this one way back at the Blue House, but wasn't sure what this was going to sound like. With the black and orange on the cover, was this going to be spooky? The guys on the cover sure looked threatening enough!

Quite a compilation, this one. It's a 2-CD set that has pretty much everything they ever recorded and/or released, and digitally remastered. And loud, too! Unfurling the little booklet in the, what a history of this band that was only around for just a few years. So many different lineup changes, save for Van Morrison himself, and their bass player, Alan Henderson. I had no idea how many players had come and gone in such a short time, and I saw that they had a second album, Them Again, which I wasn't even aware of.

The first disc showcases the classic era, when they banged out hits like "Here Comes The Night", "Mystic Eyes" and the immortal "Gloria", which launched umpteen garage bands for years to come. But there were some great, bluesy tunes such as "All For Myself", "One More Time" and "Just A Little Bit", just to name a few. Why these guys weren't and aren't more revered is beyond me...this stuff kicked major ass. Raw, bluesy, snot-nosed R&B with Van howlin' and hollerin'...what's not to like?

A lot of the songs are heard in real stereo, though some of the songs may have been mixed later on when a similar-titled double-album compilation was compiled back in 1972. The two copies of the first album I have here are both in mono, so I can't comment on if the mixes on the stereo copies were really in stereo or not. But it is exciting to hear "Gloria" and "Here Comes The Night" in full, wide-open stereo. On the other hand, we have some songs where the song was in mono, but some extra added percussion instruments are added in the left channel, making them "stereo".

Apart from way too many lineup changes, one criticism about the band is the fact that they were often augmented by session musicians on their recordings. So maybe they were, but they sure had a great sound (at least in the beginning), and well-written tunes. Alan Henderson's bass playing was rock-solid, and he was the only one who was never replaced by a studio player. Or there's just plain old "I don't like Van Morrison", though that applies to either his music, his prickly personality, or both.

As for the second disc, there was not a whole lot to make me go back and listen to it. Their sound was a little too jazz-driven in places, not helped by poor production and less-than-stellar songwriting (especially on the ones not written by Van). The one cut well worth the price of admission was their version of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". Great atmospheric piano fed through a tremolo unit that drives the song along.

Now, as 2015 comes to a close, there is a three-CD set coming out that not only features all of the above, but a third disc comprising of unreleased studio takes, demos and BBC radio sessions. Not only is this going to be bitchin', but it will be great to see and hear this stuff coming out again. Maybe they'll finally get the respect they finally deserve!