Three Australian ’70s Reissues. Reviewed by Ian McFarlane.
CHAIN – The History of Chain (Mushroom/Warner Music)
MADDER LAKE – The Best of Madder Lake (Mushroom/Warner Music)
SID RUMPO – First Offense (Mushroom/Warner Music)
Warner Music has launched a series of CD reissues to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of one of this country’s most iconic record labels, Mushroom Records. These are the first three titles, all of which were original LP releases back in the day. While I wouldn’t call the CDs budget releases, beware that you only get the basic 4-page CD insert with brief liner notes from Billy Pinnell and little else in the packaging. The pay-off, however, is that the music is of sufficiently high quality (with remastering by Gill Matthews) and the extra hook is the presence of three bonus tracks apiece over and above the original music programme of the vinyl releases.
Michael Gudinski had been Chain’s manager and when he launched Mushroom in 1973 naturally one of his first signings had been ‘his boys’. When the band originally broke up in 1974, The History of Chain double LP was one of the first serious local historical digs focusing on one band. It came out on CD in 1998 as part of Mushroom 25 but was soon deleted. And it’s still a beauty! The band’s first single ‘Show Me Home’ (1969), ‘Gertrude Street Blues’ from Chain Live (1970), the B-side to the ‘Black and Blue’ single ‘Lightning Ground’ (1971) and three astonishingly powerful live tracks (‘Black and Blue’ and covers of Elmore James’ ‘Dust My Blues’ and Robert Johnson’s ‘32/20’) recorded at the Wallacia Festival (1971) sound incredible – masterful, heavy Aussie blues of the highest order. And that’s only Disc One.
There’s plenty more on Disc Two (‘Judgement’, ‘Two of a Kind’, ‘I’m Gonna Miss You Babe’ etc). As to the bonus tracks you get the original single version of ‘Black and Blue’ – which wasn’t on the LP and as Billy Pinnell points out in his notes “it is a history of Chain after all” – and two more live tracks, this time from Garrison: The Final Blow Unit 2 LP – ‘Grab a Snatch and Hold It’ and ‘Do What You Wanna Do’ – which originally came out on vinyl on Mushroom’s anti-Ripoff label.
Madder Lake was another of Gudinski’s managerial charges and earliest signings to Mushroom. In fact, the band’s single ‘Goodbye Lollipop’ had been the first ever release on Mushroom (February 1973). The Aztec label reissued the band’s two albums – Stillpoint and Butterfly Farm – on CD around 2008, so The Best of Madder Lake is a handy primer covering a range of singles and album tracks. You get the single version of ‘12Lb Toothbrush’, four tracks apiece from the two albums, ‘Down the River’ recorded live at Sunbury 1973 and two latter day singles which still sound pretty good, ‘It’s All in Your Head’ and ‘I Get High’. The band essentially played progressive psych blues so instrumentally there was much emphasis placed on long passages but they did possess a keen commercial streak and hence the accessibility of the singles.
One of the amazing things about Madder Lake is that the band never officially split up; they just stopped playing regular gigs around 1979 and have continued to appear on stage over the ensuing three decades whenever the mood took them. So the bonus material comes from a live show recorded in 2008 and as the musicians have remained active, the music still sounds powerful as well as supple. If anything, newest member Andy Burns has a jazzier touch on keyboards than utilised by either of the group’s original players, John McKinnon and Andy Cowan. Keen observers will question the exclusion of the band’s three tracks that appeared on the Garrison albums – ‘Bumper Bar Song’, ‘When is a Mouse’ and ‘Rodney’s Birthday’ – I can report that they were included on the Aztec reissues if you want to track down those CDs.
Among records by Madder Lake, Skyhooks, Buffalo, Kush, Coloured Balls and AC/DC one of the first Aussie albums I bought as a music-besotted teenager in the mid-70s was Sid Rumpo’s First Offense, so I have a real connection with this music. Perth blues band Sid Rumpo headed over to Melbourne in 1973 and was immediately feted as a powerful live entity. The group’s lone studio album First Offense remains a terrific recording, a feast of gritty blues-rockin’ guitar, driving rhythms and quality song writing. Robert Searls was one of the great gravel-throated blues wailers of the day and a unique feature of the band’s sound was the use of dual, harmony guitar lines which had the effect of enhancing the natural spaciousness of the music.
This is particularly noticeable across the longer progressive tracks such as ‘Sailing’ and ‘Song with no Trees’ during which they approach a sound not that dissimilar to the Allman Brothers for example. More concise tracks like ‘Spotlight’, ‘Breaking My Back’ and the single ‘The Riddle’ boast a funky edge that never loses sight of the groove. As to the bonus material you get the single B-side ‘Jump Down, Step Aside’ and the two tracks lifted from Garrison, ‘Now I’m Free’ and ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’. Which is great but in this case, I’d have to say it’s a missed opportunity.
I could have done with even more bonus material, such as the positively sizzling live renditions of Willie Dixon’s ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and Robert Johnson’s ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ from the Highlights of Sunbury ’74 Part 2 album. I’d nominate ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ as the most powerful local recording of a Johnson song – the swaggering bompa-bompa rhythm, strident guitar lines, sand-paper vocals and boogie-woogie piano – it’s all there in three and half minutes of epochal Aussie blues-rock.