Rockin’ All Over The World #9 — Britain
The British progressive blues-rock scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a fertile, swirling, multi-coloured circus. Various hybrids of rock and other styles were progressively blended (or mangled, depending on your point of view) to produce inventive albums full of delightful musical surprises. Often these albums sold bugger all—not necessarily a reflection on their quality but rather myriad other factors such as tiny labels with no distribution, rubbish marketing, no radio exposure, and so on—resulting in them becoming, decades later, highly desirable collector’s pieces.
Musicians often moved between groups, especially in sub-genres such as ‘Heavy Prog’. Peter French was one such, playing with Leafhound, Atomic Rooster (both UK), Cactus (USA) and even a couple of late 70s singles with German progressive outfit Randy Pie. It’s his leaving of Leafhound and joining Atomic Rooster that is relevant here.
After having success with their second album—Death Walks Behind You—Vincent Crane’s organ lead heavy prog band released In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster in 1971. Peter French was a new addition and is without doubt my favourite Rooster vocalist. His style is powerful, yet avoids the histrionics of Chris Farlowe (who arrived for the next LP, Made in England).
The album’s lyrical concerns reflect those of main man Vincent Crane. His lifetime battle (and eventual surrender to) depression is all over the lyrics, not least in opening cut “Breakthrough”.
An invisible prison encircles my mind
I wait for a vision, I search for a sign
An invisible prison is built around me
There may be a guard, but there isn’t a key
I got to break-out, I have to be free
I got to break-out, it’s stifling me
But it’s not all doom and gloom. “Break the ice” is more upbeat, both musically and lyrically – the rhythm guitar of John du Cann is rock solid and trades off against Crane’s organ brilliantly. The ballad “Decision/Indecision” features the leader on piano and despite the ambivalence of the title, is about seeking change. Though the patina of sadness remains.
Those who love a good heavy prog instrumental (see “Vug” on Death Walks) will thrill to the rollicking, pummelling sounds of “A Spoonful of Bromide”. The chemical used as a sedative (and anti-convulsant) seems an odd topic for a piece of rock music, but perhaps the applications mentioned provide a clue. Paradoxically, this piece will certainly not put you to sleep; it charges forward like a freight train.
The Castle Music 2004 re-issue on CD includes three welcome bonuses (especially for those who didn’t fork out silly money for Atomic Rooster at the BBC), two live cuts and the dark yet effervescent non-album single “Devil’s Answer”.
It’s a shame Peter French didn’t stay around. The clean production and variety on In Hearing of… make it a stand-out Rooster album. But it cannot have been easy touring with Vincent Crane.
The only thing I found difficult with Vince — and it wasn’t his musical integrity, I can’t fault that at all, it was a very good education for me — was that he was very depressive. When we did the American tour he was a very shut-off guy to try and get to know — not impolite or rude, but very inside himself. [Peter French to writer Colin Harper, 2004 CD liner notes]
Slow blues “Black Snake” has the repeated line “black snake living in a black hole, hiding from the sun”. Like many fans of Atomic Rooster, the gloomy attitude was a big part of the attraction, yet a sadness lingers, for me at least, that Vincent was not able to get the help he obviously needed to escape his dungeon. There’s always a way out—slow, painful maybe, but possible—and I wish this talented keyboard player had stayed around longer to share his journey. What we do have, though, is Atomic Rooster’s most consistent album, one worthy of sitting next to the mighty Death Walks Behind You*.
Fun factoid footnote: The cover for In Hearing Of Atomic Rooster was created by Roger Dean, the famous designer of countless iconic album covers by Yes and many other artists.
* The title track of which I have requested be played at my funeral, followed by Lennon doing “Twist and Shout” as exit music.
#9 in the ROCKIN’ ALL OVER THE WORLD SERIES