❉ A compelling overview of an accomplished but luckless band, writes Huw Thomas.
Gloria Jones. Althea & Donna. St. Winifred’s School Choir. Popular music is awash with acts defined by one release and one only. In some circles, it’s a badge of honour. Celebrated psychedelic groups Tintern Abbey and the Tickle caught the light just once during the genre’s 1967 epoch; those lonely 45s have attained an attractive mystery as a result. But what of the groups who kept it together after a definitive debut? The popular reputation of West London band Fire rests solely on their 1968 single Father’s Name is Dad, an accomplished arrival backed by the Beatles’ Apple Publishing. Subject to the music industry’s standard trials and tribulations, Fire’s luck fizzled out. However, they continued to navigate rock’s underbelly and eventually achieved what so many of their psych-era contemporaries never did – they released an album! Every known Fire recording is compiled on a new 3CD collection from Grapefruit, Father’s Name is Dad – The Complete Fire.
Formed as Friday’s Chyld in the mid-60s, Fire were a trio made up of guitarist/vocalist Dave Lambert (later of the Strawbs), Dick Dufall and Bob Voice (later of The Jim Davidson Album). Managed by John Turner and Derek Savage, they made their earliest recordings at R.G. Jones’ studio in Surrey in mid-1967 before being signed by Decca and Apple Publishing. Their recordings were first collected in 1997 for Tenth Planet’s Underground and Overhead: The Alternate Fire and Disc 1 here largely mirrors that release in contents. It covers the band’s earliest recordings including both versions of their best-known track.
Written by Fire chief Dave Lambert, Father’s Name is Dad is teenage philosophy as vital as any by Pete Townshend. It really was teenage, too; Lambert turned nineteen a week prior to its release in March 1968. The verses are laconic – the band knew they had a great chorus – but the theme of teenage frustration (“So now at my present age which people call the awkward stage / Why should everything be made to look like insane escapades?”) feels like a preview for another debut single and another teenage songwriter; where Lambert was questioning, Paul Weller was angry in the Jam’s In the City (“I wanna tell you about the young ideas / but you turn them into fears”). The B-side Toffee Treacle World is another winner, an ice-cool freakbeat number that pitches a Move-like zig-zag beneath an oh-so-English vocal. It is strongly evocative of Syd Barrett – not the “crazy diamond” but the vanished pop star of Arnold Layne and Candy and a Currant Bun. Fire were hotly tipped with this first single but it was recalled one week after release, supposedly on the request of one Paul McCartney. The band refined their vocals and guitar work for an amended version issued in September, but the momentum was gone and the record never charted.
Fire’s second single arrived in November 1968. Round the Gum Tree / Toothy Ruthie is a significant step down, the ugly outcome of managerial interference. Only a pulsing bassline betrays the band’s hip credentials on the A-side, a minute and a half of handclaps and egregious Pinky and Perky vocals. Indeed, only Dave Lambert agreed to appear on either side of this single. It’s tempting to call Round the Gum Tree the band’s very own The Laughing Gnome, but Bowie’s record has charm. Sadly, this was Fire’s final single and the remaining contents of Disc 1 demonstrate just what shame that is. The array of demos makes a compelling case for Fire as peers to the Action and the Creation. The songs are commercial and the band have a kinetic energy. They sound positively post-punk on short sharp songs like I’ve Still Got Time and Will I Find Love?. The ten-minute Alison Wonderland may spread it thin but the band never lose that verve. They’re Kinks-y on Happy Sound and kinky on Boys and Girls Together (“Boys and girls together, wearing heavy leather”). Best of all is Man in the Teapot, a superb Brit-pop jaunt that might be their best song.
That this material went unreleased in its time is bewildering. The history of pop music is a history of talented musicians bent out of shape by music industry machinations; the specifics are rarely interesting but this is an especially cruel example. Fire really had the material and a powerful sound. “How can I take the blame for anything I’ve done”, indeed.
After changing management and signing with Pye, Fire next bobbed their heads above the surface with The Magic Shoemaker (1970), their only full-length release. The album and six associated demos make up the second disc here. With histrionic vocals and noodling guitars, this feels like a different band altogether. The spikiness from the Decca-era recordings is still there but the teenage alienation is gone in favour of a daffy concept about, yes, a magic shoemaker. The songs are interspersed with snippets of Lambert telling the story to some children, all deadpan and Nigel Tufnel-like (“He ran to tell his wife about these magic shoes he was very excited about, and he asked his wife why should he have magic shoes and nobody else? And sh- she replied ‘there’s a reason for everything’”).
Fire sound proficient if not particularly unique on the album. Perhaps they weren’t so distinctive in their earlier, modish incarnation either, but those recordings zero in on a moment and deliver. The Fire of The Magic Shoemaker are muddier in sound and intent, and progressive rock in 1970 was a sodden field. The influence of Family, particularly of their frontman Roger Chapman, is tangible as Dave Lambert yelps and hollers his way through the fairy-tale. Like Fire’s earlier releases, the album failed to find an audience upon release.
Tell You a Story is a promising opener, with the band engaged in the kind of galactic throb that would fill stadiums decades hence. Magic Shoes is in that vague psych-era tradition of earnest tunes about poor, overworked old men (see: Excerpt from a Teenage Opera, Mr. Small the Watch Repairer Man, Reflections of Charles Brown, Harry the One-Man Band) but the album’s chief problem is quickly apparent. Though the concept is endearing and happily uncomplicated, the lyrics are a little weak and even lazy throughout. It’s quite striking for a concept album to feature lyrics seemingly guided by easy rhymes. The band play to their strengths in moments like the rocking extended outro to I Can See the Sky. However, tracks like Reason for Everything – in which Lambert ponders the big questions such as “why does a cat have a tail?” and “why do the French eat the snail?” – make me think The Magic Shoemaker is best enjoyed with a sense of humour. Unfortunately, I don’t think that was the intention.
Disc 3 is perhaps the most surprising of this set. Fire dissipated after The Magic Shoemaker – Lambert became part of the Strawbs while Dufall and Voice joined the psychedelic folk outfit Paul Brett’s Sage – but in 2007, the band regrouped for two live shows performing The Magic Shoemaker in full. These recordings are revelatory. Many of the songs from the album are significantly rearranged and the entire work really benefits from a fuller sound than the band were afforded in 1970. The reunited Fire also performed a selection of songs from their Decca era; hearing the original players recreate – and nail – those freakbeat classics Toffee Treacle World and Father’s Name is Dad nearly 40 years on is a total joy. The live shows sound like a great, final triumph for a band who deserved better. With extensive sleeve notes detailing the band’s career, Father’s Name is Dad – The Complete Fire makes an excellent monument to their talents.
❉ Fire: ‘Father´s Name Is Dad -The Complete Fire’ 3CD Digipak (Grapefruit CRSEG099T) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £18.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.