Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Digitally remastered and expanded edition of this 1975 release from the British Prog/Art rockers including bonus tracks. Recorded for Virgin Records, Rotters' Club was the sophomore album by the band comprising former Caravan member Richard Sinclair, keyboard player Dave Stewart, guitarist Phil Miller and drummer Pip Pyle. Regarded as one of the finest albums in the Canterbury genre, the album also featured guest appearances by Jimmy Hastings and Mont Campbell. This reissue adds bonus material, together with a booklet featuring restored artwork and notes by Sid Smith. Esoteric.
"If Hatfield and the North was a shot across the bow of progressive rock, fusion jazz and pop songwriting, The Rotters Club was an even more mature effort, taking all the group's many distinctive qualities to the next level. That it did so in such order is all the more remarkable. Sinclair's buoyant "Share It," which opens the disc, is the most concise pop song Hatfield ever recorded, and would have stood a far better chance at radio success than its previously released single. It also features one of Stewart's best solos, on Minimoog; perfect in construction, it's proof that his strength as a focused soloist was intact, whether it was over longer stretches, or as here over a single verse and chorus.
Like its predecessor, The Rotters Club is largely a continuous experience, with the first side's seven tracks - ranging from another serpentinely elliptical instrumental from Miller, "Lounging There Trying," to Pyle's riff-based "The Yes / No Interlude," which features Stewart's powerfully overdriven organ, a wind duet and powerful saxophone solo courtesy of Caravan's Jimmy Hastings, and one of Miller's most outrageous solos of the set - linked together with clever segues. The side ends with Pyle's lyrically rewritten but still hauntingly prescient "Fitter Stoke Has a Bath," and Sinclair's "Didn't Matter Anyway," one of the bassist's most poignant songs, also featuring some beautiful flute work from Hastings.
Throughout, both the group's collective chemistry and individual strengths have evolved palpably. Stewart, playing more electric piano than on Hatfield and the North, is especially notable, with his solo on "The Yes / No Interlude" representing one of the most harmonically deep, melodically labyrinthine improvisations of his tenure with Hatfield. His voicings are unmistakable and, without any doubt, jazz-centric in nature. Hatfield may have been dismissed by those who believed that jazz was proprietary to its American roots, but despite the pop songwriting that was an undeniable part of who Hatfield was, it was equally and undeniably a jazz group, where improvisation and sophistication were given an accessible veneer that masked the challenging music going on under the hood.
Two of Hatfield's best instrumental (largely) works make up side two of the original LP. Miller's "Underdub" is an exercise in a different kind of swing, with a knotty set of changes and another winding melody that, here, is all the more beautiful for its doubling by Stewart on electric piano and Hastings on flute. Stewart works his way through Miller's complex changes before the group returns to its lengthy theme and the album's only fade-out and clearly intended/lengthy pause, which sets up the ethereal and atmospheric opening of "Mumps," Stewart's most advanced writing to date.
Stewart's use of The Northettes' heavenly vocals - another of Hatfield's most definitive colors - allows him to layer theme after theme without ever becoming overly dense. And as "Mumps" progresses from its initial quiet version of Stewart's memorable "Your Majesty Is Like A Cream Donut" theme (forgetting about the humorous Monty Python reference of the title) into its second segment, "Lumps," Stewart takes his most vibrant organ solo of the album, bolstered by Pyle's flexibly responsive rhythm and Sinclair's remarkable ability to simultaneously play anchor and foil. The Northettes, Sinclair, Miller and Stewart enter a passage of pure contrapuntal wizardry, with Pyle the only rock keeping a steady pulse; a lead-in to the knotty song form of "The Alphabet Song," towards the end of "Lumps." Puns galore - as Sinclair sings: "I have minded my P's and Q's/Tried not to damage any W's/And if I tread upon a B/I'll pick it up and tell it earnestly," ending with the almost painful "Balancing syllables upon my knees/I've flown through the air with the greatest of E's/I did what you told me to/Now I only have I's for U" - it's an early sign of Stewart's comedic writing, something that would become increasingly evident on his liner notes to later compilations like National Health's Complete (East Side Digital, 1990) and even more so in Copious Notes (Egg Archive, 2007), Stewart's collection of recollections about Uriel and Egg by himself and others involved.
The near-perfect construction of the 20-minute long "Mumps" stands as some of Stewart's most profound writing ever - and some of Hatfield's best playing. It's near-classical use of thematic iteration, in a context that, at times, rocks with great energy but, elsewhere, demonstrates remarkable nuance and understatement, makes it in some ways a sad closer to The Rotters Club. While Stewart would go on to great compositional heights and more ambitious orchestration with National Health, the confluence that made Hatfield and the North what is was would never be recaptured, begging the question of where would this band have gone had it not broken up, the result of great artistic success that remained unsupported by anything more than minimal commercial achievement.
The live bonus tracks here are the same as those on the original Virgin CD issue, except that Stewart's brief "(Big) John Wayne Socks Psychology On The Jaw" and Pyle/Sinclair's "Chaos At The Greasy Spoon" that segued into the bassist's "Halfway Between Heaven and Earth" are omitted, but the version of "Halfway" is the full version, fading up on Sinclair's bass solo rather than the slightly edited take on the Virgin release where it's cut out. Yet another example of Sinclair's romantic lyric writing, but with a more complicated underlying context, Sinclair also demonstrates a distinctive variation on scatting, with an underwater sound that, as it turns out after seeing him perform with the reformed Hatfield at the 2006 La Festival des Musiques Progressives de Montréal, was nothing more complicated than wobbling his lips with his finger or rapidly undulating his tongue while he sings.
Two Miller tracks close out the disc, as they did the Virgin issue: the monster riff-driven "Oh, Len's Nature!" and more jazz-centric "Lything and Gracing" - the former an anagram renaming of "Nan's True Hole" from Matching Mole's Little Red Record (Columbia, 1972), and the latter a retitling of Little Red Record's "Righteous Rhumba." Again, not particularly revealing since the release of Hatwise Choice and Hattitude, but in the day shedding some light into the improvisational prowess of the group in performance, they remain strong reminders of Miller's ability to find the absolute opposite of what might be expected.
Which, at the end of the day, is as good a way to describe Hatfield as any. Lyrical, funny, muscular, subtle, improv-rich but composition-heavy, there was and remains no group remotely like Hatfield and the North. Three-quarters of the group would, following its break-up in 1975, once again find themselves together in 1978 with National Health, a group that, by that time, had become more distinctly driven by Stewart's vision. Hatfield, on the other hand, was always more egalitarian, as Stewart recently described, "I always saw Hatfield as Pip's band because he pulled the personnel together. Musically it started off as a four-way thing which tilted in my direction after the introduction of my longer pieces, but I feel it remained a compositional collective to the end and was arguably a better, more varied band for that."
With Pyle's recent demise, Esoteric's definitive reissues of Hatfield and the North and The Rotters Club are even more important documents of a very specific time and place - and a group that successfully managed to create music of great depth and complexity, while retaining a sense of levity and lack of pretention that made it a model for progressive jazz groups for years to come, including France's Forgas Band Phenomena, and Italy's Picchio dal Pozzo and D.F.A. That the group lasted for such a short time is a tragedy; but that it left two albums that are as close as it comes to perfect is something for which to be very, very grateful." -AllAboutJazz
Personnel: Richard Sinclair (vocals, guitar); Phil Miller (guitar); Jimmy Hastings (flute, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone); Tim Hodgkinson (clarinet); Lindsay Cooper (oboe, bassoon); Mont Campbell (French horn); Pip Pyle (drums, percussion).
Audio Remasterer: Ben Wiseman.
Recording information: Lille, France (06/09/1974-03/16/1975); Lyon, France (06/09/1974-03/16/1975); Rainbow Theatre (06/09/1974-03/16/1975); Toulouse, France (06/09/1974-03/16/1975); Worthing Recording Studio (06/09/1974-03/16/1975).
Featuring some of the most stunning musicianship ever associated with England's Canterbury scene, Hatfield and the North's second LP features, like their eponymous debut, Dave Stewart on keyboards, Phil Miller on guitar, Richard Sinclair on bass and vocals, and Pip Pyle on drums (supplemented by a few guest instrumentalists and the ever-ethereal Northettes with their "la la" backing vocals). The participants show an admirable sense of restraint and, like their Canterbury peers, are careful to avoid the pomposity and bombast of better-known prog rockers of the era, such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes. The Hatfields' convoluted instrumental passages segue into the occasional Sinclair vocal vehicle, in which the exemplary bassist sings in a polite and mellow croon that utterly avoids melismatic displays, histrionics, or over-emoting; in other words, his style -- closer to, say, Bing Crosby than, say, Joe Cocker -- would likely cause many 21st century pop music listeners to scratch their heads with bemusement. And the songs' rather whimsical lyrical content, while perhaps another conscious attempt to steer clear of the pretentiousness of the typically overbearing prog rock song style, certainly reflects a '60s/'70s mindset more than a 21st century one, so today's jaded listeners should realign their expectations. Things get off to a strong start with "Share It," a catchy little number with Sinclair expressing some idealistic and hard-to-criticize Brit hippie sentiments. Elsewhere, the "songs" are few and far between, but crop up in odd spots nevertheless; the Hatfields were masters of the segue and the most masterly demonstrations of instrumental technique wind up bleeding into ditties that might seem out of place to some.
But Stewart, Miller, Sinclair, and Pyle all make wonderful instrumental statements. Particularly noteworthy are Miller's two short jazzy numbers, "Lounging There Trying" and "Underdub," which, with their sparkling electric piano work from Stewart, have a light and airy improvisational feel despite rather thorough scoring; Pyle's propulsive "Yes No Interlude" with its furious melding of Stewart's keyboards and the sax of guest Jimmy Hastings; and Stewart's 20-minute opus "Mumps." The latter is particularly impressive, with everything anyone would want from an extended-form Canterbury-style workout. The piece ebbs and flows through nimbly executed thematic passages and variations, featuring one of Stewart's most compelling themes and also one of the best fuzz organ solos that he (or Mike Ratledge or David Sinclair for that matter) ever recorded. Smack dab in the middle of it all, another Sinclair-sung tune arrives, this time making punning use of letters of the alphabet. But the suite gets back on track with a dramatic instrumental coda, melding spacy effects, more great organ playing from Stewart, and spectacularly executed unison lines from Miller and Hastings in crescendo before the final fade. The Virgin Records CD reissue features several live bonus tracks (also found on the Afters compilation), including two comparatively crazed and heavy Miller instrumental pieces recorded in France and, from a date at the Rainbow Theatre in London, Sinclair's "Halfway Between Heaven and Earth," which has a bit more of the feel of his vocal work with Caravan than with the Hatfields. Too bad there's a premature fadeout during another great Stewart organ solo. One wonders where the band was headed with that. ~ Dave Lynch