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If Paradise was Half as Nice - Amen Corner

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Released: 26 Feb 2008 / Label: Sanctuary

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      24.11.2012 10:44
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      Excellent summary of an eclectic group's all-too-short career

      AMEN CORNER

      Amen Corner, a late 1960s seven-piece band from Cardiff, enjoyed three successful years before disbanding in 1969. Vocalist Andy Fairweather-Low, who sounded like a cross between Sting and Rod Stewart on helium, later had a solo career as well as playing guitar for the likes of Eric Clapton and Roger Waters, keyboard player Blue Weaver worked successively with the Strawbs, Mott The Hoople and the Bee Gees, and some of the others have reformed the band to play the cabaret circuit.

      After two years on Decca's Deram label, at the end of 1968 they signed with the then hip new independent label Immediate, where they had two final hit singles, a hit album, and released a live set. All these, plus a few previously unreleased items, appear on this 35-track double CD. Financial problems took their toll, with band and label both equally broke and both calling it a day at the end of 1969.

      THE MUSIC

      Disc 1 (23 tracks, 78 minutes playing time) includes both sides of the last three singles, in both mono and stereo, all the tracks from their second and last studio album, 'Farewell to the Real Magnificent Seven', and the unreleased work. Disc 2 reproduces the in-concert set, 'The National Welsh Coast Live Explosion Company'.

      The first disc shows the dual personality of a group which, like many others of the era, was caught between two stools. The record company recognised a hit singles machine when it saw one, and was intent on keeping them in the charts while 13-year-olds had posters of Andy on their bedroom wall. But they had started as a more blues and soul-based group, and the odd touches of a yearning to experiment with the rootsier side, plus a tentative step or two in the progressive rock direction, are evident. It's therefore a slightly inconsistent but nevertheless very enjoyable collection.

      First come the three singles and their B-sides. The 1969 No. 1 hit '(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice' begins the collection, and that chorus, once heard, is never forgotten. Next comes the B-side 'Hey Hey Girl', one of Andy's songs, a more R'n'B-style song which sounds a little reminiscent of the Easybeats' much-covered oldie 'Good Times', with strong organ and sax.

      'Hello Susie' is noteworthy as the only song ever written by Roy Wood (The Move, briefly ELO and then Wizzard) which was a Top 10 hit for someone else. A real brassy belter, it could hardly be more unlike The Move's own almost menacingly heavy metal guitar version. The B-side is a very different proposition, the slow, bluesy 'Evil Man's Gonna Win' - largely instrumental, broken from time to time by the title being chanted over and over again, almost in the background. All four of these are in mono.

      Their only single never to make the charts, released as both group and label were about to disappear, was 'Get Back', a strange choice, as the Beatles' own version had topped the charts only six months earlier. I can't make up my mind here. On one hand I think it's a total mistake, yet to their credit they do alter the arrangement, giving it a funky guitar workout with almost jazzy piano. Not surprisingly it failed to fly out of the shops like the previous 45s. The B-side 'Farewell To The Real Magnificent Seven' (which ironically did not appear on the album of that title) is the strangest piece here of all. Nearly seven minutes long, it's a slow, almost ambient more-or-less instrumental, with wordless chanted vocal passages, tempo changes throughout and a kind of Pink Floyd feel.

      This is followed by the tracks from the studio LP. To keep the length of this review within limits, let's just take the highlights.

      Three numbers are credited to their manager Don King, while several are Fairweather-Low originals - perhaps significantly, none of the rest of the group get as much as a co-composing credit. On the whole, Andy's songs are the best. 'Lady Riga' is an attractive mid-tempo song which unusually for the group relies mainly on guitars and drums, with little keyboards in evidence and, oddly, no brass to be heard. 'At Last I've Found Someone To Love' is a slowish number, reliant mainly on strings. Reminiscent of the style of contemporary popsters the Love Affair ('Everlasting Love'), this was considered as a single, and is certainly in the same vein as 'Half As Nice', though not as strong.

      'Scream And Scream Again', written by the Howard Blaikley partnership, responsible for hit after hit by fellow 1960s posters Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich and the Herd. Written for a film of that name, the first 30 seconds are a mixture of atmospheric sound effects and an almost funky workout before the vocals come in, backed by guitar, Hammond organ and only the merest hint of saxophone later.

      Among Andy's own songs, 'Sanitation' features some rocky guitar, including was-wah effects, and organ on the intro. The basic rhythm is close to the trademark Bo Diddley style (think 'Who Do You Love', and the Rolling Stones' version of 'Not Fade Away'). 'Mr Nonchalant' is slower, with sombre strings and harmony vocals. It sounds a little too earnest - until, if you listen closely, you can hear an almost off-mic Welsh voice (Andy himself?) shouting out clearly, "like a bloody Welsh choir!" Ah, don't you love bands who don't take themselves too seriously? 'Welcome To The Club' is another slowish track notable for the lack of keyboards and brass. Finally, 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be' kicks straight into a rock'n'roll groove, and I do wish they hadn't cut it off after a pinch over two minutes - it (and us) deserved more.

      I'll pass on two more cover versions, The Band's 'The Weight' and Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Proud Mary'. The originals are so well-known, and in my view they don't really suit Amen Corner. But as for the two previously unreleased tracks, 'Natural Sinner', with its folksy acoustic guitar and harmonica, is a demo for the song which Fair Weather (basically the group, minus both sax players, on another record label) took into the Top 10 in 1970 during their all-too-short existence. 'Long Chocolate Limousine' sounds like a backing track, with mainly drums, bass and a little rhythm guitar. I'd love to know how they planned to develop it.

      At the end of Disc 1 are stereo mixes of 'Half As Nice', 'Hello Susie', and their B-sides. This version of 'Susie' is a re-recording, with minor differences on the intro, extra guitar and drums after the first chorus, and a proper ending instead of a fadeout, making it about 20 seconds longer.

      Disc 2 (12 tracks, 36 minutes) is the original live album. In the 1970s, live sets were notorious for being carefully doctored, tweaked and almost re-recorded in the studio afterwards, so how honest this is a record of their performance, I don't know. It starts off with a mighty instrumental led by organ (which might have you wondering whether it's actually fellow-Immediate label group The Nice and Keith Emerson instead), that suddenly breaks into the bombastic mid-section from 'MacArthur Park'. There are no vocals here - so no reference to cakes left out in the rain.

      The next five tracks are a bunch of old soul and R'n'B standards, the music they evidently enjoyed playing best on stage. 'Baby Do The Philly Dog', 'Shake A Tail Feather', 'Our Love Is In The Pocket' and their like many not have been meaningful lyrics, but sure as hell made great dance tunes.

      Then it's pop time, with their version of 'Penny Lane', starting oddly enough with the ending as per the Beatles' version, before beginning a cheery canter through the rest of the song. Next come the hits, and it's singalong time to the earlier successes, 'High In the Sky', the moody 'Gin House', and the effervescent 'Bend Me, Shape Me', plus inevitably 'Half As Nice'. Andy gets the crowd to sing along on the choruses, and the inevitable screamers are to be heard. As an in-concert record it's OK, but if you want the superior versions of those initial hits, it's worth getting hold of the CD 'Amen Corner: The Collection', which concentrates on the material they issued through Deram 1967-68. (Though now deleted, copies are easily obtainable through the usual outlets). A short outro with the old soul tune 'Stag-O-Lee' concludes proceedings.

      CONCLUSION

      Amen Corner were a superb pop band. I never saw them live but remembered them from the singles at the time, only first heard the album tracks many years later, and after repeated listening this collection has grown on me. It's evident that if they had been given chance to develop, they could have produced many more fine albums - the talent was certainly there.

      PACKAGING

      Full marks for this. The insert is basically a 16-page poster which includes photos, old record labels, memorabilia, discography and an extensive history of the band, based partly on brief interviews with several members.

      I'll deduct one star for the cover versions, which is possibly a little mean. But those apart, this gets an unreserved thumbs-up from me.


      [Revised version of a review I originally posted on dooyoo]

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