Patto – ‘Patto’ & ‘Hold Your Fire’ reviewed

❉ The missing link between Timebox and The Rutles, remastered and ripe for reappraisal.

If the 1960s could be summed up (albeit lazily) with a judiciously-chosen Beatles lyric as a time of opportunity and creativity, the unspoken slogan of the post-psychedelia, pre-glam year of 1970 was undoubtedly “The Party’s Over.” The revolution didn’t happen. The old gods of rock and roll were abdicating and dying. The old youth cults of mods and rockers were gone. Even the hippie was edging towards radical politics. The crushed velvet finery and glamorous finish of pop had been superseded by something louder, dryer, and dourer as the dandies of the 60s traded in their finest clobber for denim and vests. All the mods had long hair, and many had even abandoned the shirt. For most bands of the time, their transformation into hard rock or prog outfits was a simple case of hardening or honing the edges of their existing music until they became virtuoso supergroups. Everything was harder, it had to be to keep up with the new status quo, unless of course you were Status Quo.

One of the former mod bands left pondering a way forward was Timebox, fairly late arrivals to the Maximum R&B party, who had a minor hit with a cover of the Four Seasons’ Beggin’, then found themselves having to evolve to fit the times. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they went back to the drawing board, dumping their Mod influences and coming back with something fiercely individual that combined head-down R&B, prog, and jazz. Timebox’s evolution was so drastic, that they had to change their name, dubbing themselves Patto.

Named for their mercurial frontman, Mike Patto, and driven by the unique jazz-fusion lead guitar of Ollie Halsall, Patto signed to Vertigo, and quickly forged a reputation as an incendiary live draw. Patto were contenders, hugely respected by blues-rockers and proggers alike, but were arguably a cult band from the word go, not so much falling between stools as kicking the stools away altogether. The band’s first two albums, Patto, and Hold Your Fire have been reissued with lavish sleeve notes and extra tracks by Esoteric Recordings, showcasing a square peg of a band, ripe for reappraisal.

Patto’s self-titled debut album from 1970 (Vertigo 6360 016) starts off deceptively. Opener The Man is both laid-back and complex, nimbly hopping between beats and almost completely impossible to dance to. There’s no bluesy bombast, despite Patto’s grizzled diatribe of a lead vocal, delivered in classic sandpaper Paul Rodgers mode. Halsall completely abandons his guitar during the instrumental and moves to a shimmering solo on vibes instead. Ten Years After it ain’t.

Patto’s card is then marked quite badly by the uncomfortable Hold Me Back, an unpalatable bit of chest-beating blues-rock about an underage girl which is best left in 1970 in a sealed box. There’s a lot of humour and wordplay in Patto’s recordings, but the only excuse that could possibly be made for this is as a questionable product of its era. Skip it.

Happily, for Patto, Hold Me Back is the odd one out of their catalogue, but it takes a while for the band to fully reveal itself. Muff Winwood’s bone-dry production doesn’t help. The band sound good, but the no-frills sound and head-down boogie of some of the earlier, filler tracks isn’t that interesting.

Then, on Red Glow, Halsall, who’s doing a good crunchy Jimmy Page impression, suddenly starts to spiral into free jazz, like Cecil Taylor with a Gibson SG, transforming lumpy blues-rock into something quite different, as his soloing darts fluidly between Zeppelin shredding and peals of what sounds like birdsong.

As the album unfolds, so do the band. San Antone and Government Man are elastic grooves designed to kick back on live, with the latter giving the charismatic Patto the chance to spin the first of what would become a series of shaggy dog tales. It’s the ten-minute jazz-rock excursion Money Bag that finally cements the band’s identity, with Halsall’s dazzling flurries and the silly-putty rhythm section providing an extended intro for a start-stop hard-luck story from Patto.

Patto’s debut was a slightly dry intro to a great live band, but their 1971 follow-up Hold Your Fire (Vertigo 6360 032) eclipses it altogether. Warmer-sounding and more inventive, its eight tracks find them in full flow. Halsall is incendiary, while Mike Patto comes into his element as an Alex Harvey-like narrator of tales of dirty deeds and bizarre mishaps. He’s quite at home laying into the establishment too, pointedly declaring “When you bastards die, we’ll still be here, then we’ll take over” on You, You Point Your Finger. Elsewhere, he delivers an oblique commentary on an evening gone wrong in How’s Your Father, and subverts the Faces-like chug of See You At The Dance Tonight with simple but opaque lyrics whilst Halsall goes to town around him. Hold Your Fire peaks with Patto’s finest moment, the brilliant Air-Raid Shelter, a stop-start piece of nursery-rhyme doggerel. It ebbs and flows as if conducted by Count Basie, every beat dictated by Mike Patto’s mesmeric performance. Heaven only knows what he was on about, but it’s fantastic.

A second disc captures the band in roaring live form in session at the BBC. It shows exactly why their peers were so knocked out, but Patto never made it big, splitting in 1973. Mike Patto and Ollie Halsall would go on to form Boxer, before Patto’s untimely death in 1979, aged 36. The gifted Halsall wouldn’t see old bones either, but kept working until his death in 1992.

Oddly, his most familiar work isn’t even usually attributed to him, as he later provided Eric Idle’s singing voice, and perfectly-wrought pastiche George Harrison lead guitar in Idle’s 1978 Beatles spoof The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, joined on drums by Timebox and Patto drummer John Halsey, aka Barry Wom (John Halsey was also immortalised by Paul McCartney as ‘Admiral Halsey’ and was the sticksman on Lou Reed’s Transformer – Trivia Ed).

Sadly for Halsall, despite his major contribution to the soundtrack, his biggest exposure would be as a silent partner, as he only cameoed in The Rutles film. Halsey, the last man standing, still speaks warmly of his late bandmates in the extensive sleeve notes, singling out Halsall as a true unsung talent, and proudly cheerleading Hold Your Fire as the band’s pinnacle. He’s got a point. Hold Your Fire shows Patto at their inventive, eccentric best.

❉ ‘Patto: Remastered And Expanded Edition’ (RRP £10.95) and ‘Hold Your Fire: 2CD Remastered And Expanded Edition’ (RRP £11.99) were released April 28, 2017, by Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records. Click here to order.

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