“ Audio CD: 22 Mar 2004 / Label: EMI Records „
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SIMON DUPREE AND THE BIG SOUND
A six-piece group from Portsmouth formed around the brothers Derek, Phil and Ray Shulman (there was never any such person called Simon Dupree), they released several singles and one album between 1966 and 1969. A second album was recorded but release was cancelled, and they disbanded to form the 70s prog-rock group Gentle Giant. Musically, they veered between blue-eyed soul and psychedelic pop.
This double CD contains everything they ever recorded for EMI's Parlophone label, with 55 tracks altogether. (The 11 tracks which comprised the 1967 album 'Without Reservations' appear here in mono and stereo, so make that 44 different tracks. One of them is in two parts, so let's call it 43 songs. Still with me? Am I still with me? Don't ask).
Initially they were soul boys, who had something of the spark of a garage band like the Troggs or the early Kinks combined with the sophistication of, say, a more gritty Simply Red, without Mick Hucknall's rather grating voice. The first single, 'I See The Light', is pure adrenalin, with a frantic vocal, with backing led by the rough-and-ready but energetic organ and guitar sound. A similar pattern followed for the equally unsuccessful follow-up, 'Reservations'. By then they were settling into a more psychedelic pop style, as witnessed by single number three, a cover of a Manfred Mann album track 'Day Time, Night Time'.
With no significant success yet to speak of, EMI Records were anxious to recoup their investment and handed them a tailor-made potential hit from America, the more trippy hippy 'Kites'. They thoroughly disliked it and half-heartedly asked to be relieved of it, but to no avail ('how badly do you want to stay on the label, guys?'). Ironically it became their one and only sizeable hit (No. 9 in January 1968). With swirling wind effects, an ethereal mellotron, woodblocks for percussion, a Chinese gong and even a few words spoken in Chinese, this is psychedelic flower power pop at its best. It was a pattern they followed for subsequent singles, with a distant tolling bell at the start of the follow-up 'For Whom The Bell Tolls', which gave them their final burst of chart success (a disappointing No. 43). The remaining singles were just as inventive, particularly the slower, tuneful 'Part Of My Past' which gives this anthology its title, and the jaunty 'Broken Hearted Pirates' - snatches of a sea shanty on brass singalong chorus, Dudley Moore guesting on piano, and even a talking parrot - but sadly no more hit records.
One which came close to making it was 'We Are The Moles', released in late 1968 under the alias of The Moles. The distorted vocal sounded uncannily like John Lennon and it was rumoured that the group was actually the Beatles in disguise. It's something of a novelty, with its heavy phasing, quite amusing but all things said, probably one of the weaker tracks.
On the evidence of this, they more or less left their soul roots behind first album in order to go psychedelic. But the few soul tracks are as good as anything recorded by any other British and of the same time competing for the same territory. There's a scorching medley of the much-covered '60 Minutes Of Your Love' and 'Ain't That A Lot Of Love', and a great party version of Sam Cooke's 'Amen', which almost goes into reggae. In addition there's a wonderful recording of You', which was also a minor hit for US soul outfit the Bandwagon in 1969. (I'm slightly puzzled - according to the booklet, the Shulman brothers wrote it. According to my Bandwagon CD booklet, the song was penned by American tunesmith Denny Randell. Own up, someone, but I suspect the latter is correct).
But it's the gentler psych stuff which really dominates this collection. Think Beatles (particularly 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite' from 'Sergeant Pepper'), think Rolling Stones (the dreamier stuff on 'Satanic Majesties Request'), early Status Quo and Bee Gees, to name but a few.
'Stained Glass Window' is not only a wonderful title, but also one of the highlights. Harpsichord and a string quartet provide the backdrop to a number which has some exquisite three-part vocal harmonies that sound almost like a medieval hymn in places, then goes down a bouncy pop avenue - all in the space of just over two minutes. The gorgeous ballads 'Please Come Back', 'What Cha Gonna Do' and the dreamy 'Castle In The Sky' are all soaked in mellotron with a dash of string quartet work, and 'Like The Sun, Like The Fire' opens with a kind of oompah-brass band introduction in waltz rhythm.
Sometimes, as on the intriguingly-titled 'There's A Little Picture Playhouse', they managed to sound both soulful and psychedelic at the same time. 'Can't You See' is a mid-tempo number with lavish string arrangement, not far removed from the Love Affair's immortal 'Everlasting Love', while 'Kindness' has more of a Northern soul beat. There's also a cover version of an early James Taylor song, 'Something In The Way She Moves' (now where have we heard that line before?), that was planned as a possible single before they disbanded. The majority of the tracks are in the same vein, so it's pointless describing each one in detail. Suffice to say most of them are pretty good and the appeal comes through on repeated listens. I'm not totally keen on 'Laughing Boy from Nowhere', and suspect the chuckling sound effects could prove irritating if heard too often, but that's the exception rather than the rule, and it's not enough to make me deduct a star from what really is a pretty fine record.
The 12-page booklet includes a full history of the band, including references to what each one did afterwards, and several photos. On the front and back, it even simulates the standard design of contemporary EMI album sleeves, right down to the 'Full Frequency Recording' and mono/stereo band along the top of the front, and the faux lamination edging along three sides on the back plus the then-ubiquitous circular 'Use New Emitex' advert for their record cleaning cloth - plus the original jokey sleeve note from 1967 by their early champion, the late Alan 'Fluff' Freeman, is there as well. (I promise you this all makes sense if you've ever seen a mid-late 60s EMI pop album sleeve).
The band are sadly not that well remembered. But anybody who has heard 'Kites' as an oldie, or who enjoys what passed for Britpop in the late 60s, will surely love this collection. If you're intrigued and have a minute or two to spare, the Amazon page has a 'preview all songs' option, so you can sample a few seconds of each.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]