Album review: SPOOKY TOOTH – The Island Years (An Anthology) 1967-74

This is an edited version of the interview with Spooky Tooth keyboard player/vocalist Mike Harrison that appeared on the Pete Feenstra Feature, Get Ready to ROCK! Radio on 17 May 2015 (13:16)

SPOOKY TOOTH – The Island Years (An Anthology) 1967-74

UMC [Release date 27.04.15]

‘The Island Years’ is a welcome composite of Spooky Tooth’s extensive back catalogue. In an age when even one album bands are the subject of overblown acclaim, Spooky Tooth are a reminder of a unique band who featured two keyboard playing front men, Mike Harrison and Gary Wright. The former was a great singer and the latter matched him, as well as penning some great songs and later forming Foreigner with fellow Tooth member Mick Jones. Beyond that, the band’s early stock in trade was re-arranging other people’s material to their own ends.

First the statistics; this 9-CD box set contains 31 bonus tracks including 12 previously unreleased outtakes, plus a belated ‘Live In Oldenburg’ (Germany) album and an informative 50 page booklet.

After Gary Wright joined and Art became Spooky Tooth, their career was a stop-start affair taking in r&b, gospel, soul, blues, psychedelic, prog and latterly MOR.

Their originality and sense of adventure is chronologically mapped out on ‘The Island Years’ which takes us back to 1967 and Art’s one an only album - Supernatural Fairy Tales – though they were apparently the uncredited band on the first Hapshash And The Coloured Coat album, ‘Featuring The Human Host And The Heavy Metal Kids’.

The album is very much of its time, but sets out their ability to follow adventurous arrangements, notably on their cover of Steve Stills’s ‘For What It’s Worth’, and the title track which sound like the later Uriah Heep. Six bonus stereo mixes draw you right into the studio setting.

1968’s It’s All About features their hugely underrated take of Janis Ian’s ‘Society’s Child’ (a big hit in New Zealand) and their magnificent self penned single ‘Sunshine Help Me’ –also covered by The Move and all these years later, reminding us of Paul Weller’s musical antecedents – and the blockbusting stage favourite ‘Tobacco Road’.

Listen to Edgar Winter’s White Trash version and try and tell me they hadn’t heard this version?

The keyboard led Spooky Two is more mainstream and soulful – perhaps a throwback to Mike Harrison’s VIP’s – and includes the excellent opening ‘Waiting For The Wind’, The Doobies sounding hook of ‘Feelin’ Bad’ , the extended ‘Evil Woman’ and the R&B classic ‘Better By You, Better Than Me’.  It doesn’t get much better than this and makes you wonder why it didn’t get higher than its #44 chart position.

The sonic quality is excellent throughout the studio albums and highlights the intricacy of their music.

In retrospect Ceremony sounds interesting and experimental with Pierre Henry’s electronics evoking the likes of Bran Eno and Amon Düül II, but in reality it signalled the early death knell for the band.  You can hear some great jamming in the background, but the band’s efforts are relegated to an accompanying role. No real surprise, as it wasn’t really a Spooky Tooth album.

Having alienated a lot of their core fans and having lost Gary Wright, 1970’s The Last Puff saw Mike Harrison, Mike Kellie and Luther Grosvenor team up with members of The Grease Band.  The album features a stonking version of ‘I Am the Walrus”, which brought them unexpected airplay and which and introduced the band to a whole new set of fans. Sadly three months later they split.

Gary Wright’s funky co-write ‘The Wrong Time’ and a soulful version of Joe Cocker’s ‘Something to Say’ are notable highlights.

The band reformed in 1973 for the harder edged You Broke My Heart…So I Busted Your Jaw, which features Foreigner founder Mick Jones and Gary Wright. The new approach is well represented by Mike Harrison’s bluesy ‘Cotton Growing Man’, the keyboard-led  ‘Old As I Was Born’ and the shift towards AOR vocals on ‘This Time Around’, whilst the excellent ‘Self Seeking Man’ presaged Foreigner. All in all, good stuff from an underrated album.

Witness was cut the same year and is another underrated album, from the plaintive ‘Ocean of Power through the soaring harmonies of  ‘As Long As The World Keeps Turning’ to the muscular blues undertow of ‘Don’t Ever Stray Away’. Listen to the closing melodic sweep of the Wright/Kellie penned ‘Pyramids’ and you can almost feel the band pitching for the US market.

The Mirror finds Spooky Tooth without Mike Harrison, who was replaced by veteran vocalist Mike Patto, and they also brought in funky bass player Val Burke.  It’s really for completists only and  fits the box set well.

There’s a redolent funky feel, a trademark classic organ sound and even a syrupy Garry Wright power-ballad ‘Kyle’, but by the time of its release the band had split up.  It’s OK but it ain’t really the Tooth!

Balance is finally restored with the return of Mike Harrison on the German live album which finds him in good voice.

Painstakingly researched, and lovingly assembled with the co-operation of band members, this is the kind of project that gives a box set a good name!  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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