❉ This album is a prime slice of English blues, Medicine Head giving nothing less than 100% at every turn.
This is a real curiosity, an album of traditional sounding old school blues, that takes its inspiration from the original blues sound (not the amped up variety that bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers or the Rolling Stones based their careers on) but more the original Delta Blues (where the mix of Appalachian folk and original American blues merged and in the hands of artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf kick started the original blues revolution).
Formed in Birmingham by John Fiddler & Peter Hope-Evans in the mid ‘60s, one of the (many) quirks about Medicine Head (other names considered included Dr Feelgood and The Mission) is that when they were first formed, they didn’t even have a guitar, and so their version of the Delta Blues (translated via the midlands) was very much built around the DIY ethic of lo-fi home recordings and blagging gigs.
Championed by John Peel, the band were signed to his Dandelion label, and by the time this, their debut (recorded as live in CBS’ Regent Studios) was released in November 1970, by which point the duo had a guitar, and all instrumentation was played live with no overdubs by both men.
This 50th anniversary edition sees the debut album remastered, and a second disc of single edits, BBC live performances and demos to complete the story of this album and makes this a definitive edition.
As the sleeve notes rightly state that this has the Punk ethos running through it long before punk was a thing (and like Ladbroke Grove residents Hawkwind) bands like Medicine Head and the Edgar Broughton Band were uncompromising in their performances, and were leading lights of the underground, and with Peel as record label boss, there was minimal interference from the label, which allowed the band the freedom to craft this unique debut.
A question posed in rock music since the ’60s is “Can White men sing the blues?” (No Viv, not can blue men sing the whites!) and this album answers that question with an emphatic yes (and then some!) there is none of the vocal histrionics or guitar virtuosity which typified Anglicised blues, instead of which the pared back approach here gives the tracks plenty of room to breathe, and more importantly allows the emotion and soul to flow through the album.
The intimate sound of two men, their low-key instrumentation and the emotion in the songs shines throughout this album, and this is one of the finest examples of the experimentation that permeated the era, and the sense of musical freedom and DIY performance that was prevalent in the late 60’s runs through this album like the words Scarborough through a stick of rock.
The raw emotion and sense of spirituality that tracks like Oh my Heart to Peace, Goin’ Home and His Guiding Hand have in abundance really makes this album a gem from the era.
With Peel sessions and blistering live performances of album tracks, including several versions Of His Guiding Hand, show that the music recorded on the album (in a single four-hour session) translates perfectly to the live arena, and the sound of the Jews harp and the very English vocals, prove that anyone can sing the blues if they have the heart and authenticity.
This album is a prime slice of English blues and is as authentic and soulful as anything from the original Delta era, and Medicine Head perform giving nothing less than 100% at every turn.
The musical skills and songwriting on here are sublime, and you can see why John Peel liked it, and why their single His Guiding Hand stayed in Peel’s top 50 singles box from release date to his death.
Following this the band recorded and released an album in 1972 called Dark Side of the Moon, which, when it wasn’t a commercial success, gave Pink Floyd the opportunity to use the title for their own magnum opus (which they had changed to Eclipse until the Medicine Head album failed to hit the spot commercially).
This magnificent and comprehensive 2-disc set is a perfect example of the record label letting the musicians record the songs they want to play, and is all the better for that freedom, the sense of which runs through this album, leaving the listener with a smile on their face and joy at a plethora of such uplifting and emotional music.
❉ ‘Medicine Head: New Bottles Old Medicine (50th Anniversary Edition) (Cherry Red Records CDBRED824) was released 20 November 2020 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £24.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.