❉ Frantic three disc sprawl through the many shades of sixties mod pop!
“Compiler John Harrington takes the daring approach of mixing lesser compiled tracks by the big, sharp-suited household names of the decade (The Animals, The Yardbirds, Spencer Davis Group, The Kinks, Pretty Things, Moody Blues) with the smoky club basement cult heroes (The Creation, Zoot Money, Brian Auger, Geno Washington) and some other more obscure cuts you’re unlikely to have heard before.”
For collectors of sixties music of just about any genre, it’s been hard to find interesting new material for a while. The great reissue juggernaut revved into action with the advent of CDs, loaded up most of the best stuff at speed, and we now seem to be in the “reissue of the reissue on 180g vinyl” phase with few fresh pickings on offer. Even the one-off pop and psychedelic 45s buried deep underground were hoovered up first by Nuggets, then by the Rubble series, then by every imitator who rushed through in their wake in the following decades.
All this leaves any would-be compiler of a fresh sixties compilation in a tricky spot. You can either focus largely on the huge hits or cult classics the old rookies already have, and hope to attract a fresh, young audience who are less plugged in, or you can try seeing what material remains untouched. The latter approach runs the risk of producing a very niche album with four interesting tracks on it and a large slurry of demo tape and studio acetate tracks which had all remained ignored for perfectly good reasons.
A mod set is more problematic still, as the serious mods out there are picky so-and-sos, keen collectors who tend to forever bicker about who the “proper mod” bands were. “Halcyon Days” cocks a snook at such puritanism right from the start, the opening sentences of its lovingly written CD booklet offering zero apologies – “Is ‘Halcyon Days’ a mod compilation? Yes, but adhering to a broad 21st Century definition of the term and you certainly don’t have to have ever been a mod to enjoy it!” compiler John Harrington exclaims confidently. Or is it defensively?
Whatever his outlook, this three CD set takes the daring approach of mixing lesser compiled tracks by the big, sharp-suited household names of the decade (The Animals, The Yardbirds, Spencer Davis Group, The Kinks, Pretty Things, Moody Blues) with the smoky club basement cult heroes (The Creation, Zoot Money, Brian Auger, Geno Washington, Wynder K Frog) and some other more obscure cuts you’re unlikely to have heard before.
This finely-balanced approach works far better than you might expect. Disc One in particular presents itself as a frenzied, pounding, Soho basement bar sweatfest which is so relentless it feels like being at one of the finest mod club nights with a supreme DJ in the corner. Known crowd-pleasers such as Don’t Bring Me Down and Shake meet with hipster classics like Watermelon Man and Big Time Operator, as well as extraordinarily buried treasure such as The SW4’s Shame Shame Shame and The Union’s See Saw, all without losing urgency, quality or pace. If lockdown has left you deprived of your Saturday night dancefloor fix of favourites and new surprises, this might almost make up for it – expect honking organ lines, swinging brass, chirpy female vocals, and lots of rhythm, sass and attitude, whether it comes from gig circuit veterans who never landed a record deal or the kind of sixties groups who would never score zero on Pointless.
Elsewhere on the set, the mono single mix of The Kinks’ She’s Got Everything (recorded in 1966 then released on the flipside of Days which came out in 1968) gets a rare and much-deserved outing, proving that while the group had largely abandoned the harder edges of their sound by ’68 when this came out, they certainly had plenty of high quality reserve material littering the vaults ready to be used as sharp B-sides.
Brian Auger’s Tiger also sees a Kinks-esque riff cross streams with his jazzy style to an almost exotic effect – not for no reason is this still a huge mod club floor-shaker now, and a massive hit in France in its day – and it’s an absolute pleasure to see the deeply under-rated Brummies Double Feature getting some space. While a trick was missed by not picking out their uncompiled second (and final) single for attention, which had the definitive version of Handbags and Glandrags on the A-side (in my opinion, even if nobody else is talking about it yet) and the Northern Soul styled Just Another Lonely Night on the flip, it’s a pleasure to hear the brilliantly giddy, stoned swing of Baby Get Your Head Screwed On again. Its pacy, nagging B-side Come On Baby is an additional treat too. Members Bill Hall and Brian Lake are probably two of the unluckiest people in the Midlands – their hip, assured, slightly wigged-out English takes on the soul sound are a total pleasure to listen to and deserve to be heard by thousands of other pairs of ears.
Disc Three throws some variation into the set by picking out some later mod tracks which emerged just as the bands began to flirt with the world of psychedelia, and as a result Swedish heroes The Tages’ superbly frilly and jazzy Halcyon Days (from which the compilation derives its name) gets a deserved look-in, with its lyrics from a man determined to abandon his sullen hermit’s life accidentally sounding like a theme for the average mod during lock-down. “I’ll go to work again/ even go to church again/ we’ll have halcyon days!” trill the group enthusiastically as if such ordinariness has been far out of reach for too long.
Crazy World Of Arthur Brown’s Rest Cure and Sleepy’s enjoyably quirky Traffic-meets-Small-Faces car-crash Mrs Bailey’s Barbeque and Grill are also present to warp the steady backbeat into some entertaining new directions, and prove that while the average listener may not associate hairies such as Brown with the mod movement, the foundations were there; he was also an early member of The Union who feature elsewhere on this set, and their soulful mood seeps through “Rest Cure” too, even if by this point his flaming helmet and face paint seemed distinctly un-mod.
Like most multi-CD compilations of this ilk, there are issues scattered throughout. A very small minority of the tracks have clearly been mastered from less than pristine vinyl then digitally filtered, creating a very slightly muddy, watery sound in a couple of cases. Given the obscurity of the source material, though, it’s hard to be too judgemental. Some of the cover versions on offer are also pale imitations of the originals; it’s doubtful even the closest members of Rainbow Ffolly’s families are interested in their stomp-and-handclap lo-fi demo version of Brenton Wood’s Gimme Little Sign, for example, which only leaves you longing for a burst of the original.
Halcyon Days makes up for these very minor mis-steps with some superb sequencing and a colourful, lengthy and carefully researched booklet, and avoids enough of the obvious pitfalls to make it one of the finer mod compilations to have emerged in recent years – a feast for everyone, including the initiated, the curious and the lifers who are seeking out just a few new surprises.
❉ ‘Halcyon Days: 60s Mod, R&B, Brit Soul & Freakbeat Nuggets’ (CRJAMBOX001) available from 12 December 2020 by Strawberry Records, a division of Cherry Red Records. RRP £19.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ David Bryant is a writer and poet, and the blogger behind Left and to the Back which explores the dusty world of under-discussed flop vinyl records. Articles of his have occasionally appeared in the culture section of “The Morning Star”. He was born in Ilford and remains there to this day, though the branch of Woolworths with its remainder rack filled with copies of “Out On The Floor” has long since gone.