Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera - Long Nights Of Summer, The Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera Anthology
After supporting Pink Floyd, the band known as The Five Proud Walkers were inspired to change their sound and became Velvet Opera and then Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera. After signing a record deal with CBS Records subsidiary Direction Records they released the single “Flames”, followed by their stellar eponymous debut, which ended up being their only album. Interestingly “Flames”, which was also on the CBS sampler The Rock Machine Turns You On, was included in live sets from many young bands at that time including Led Zeppelin, who performed it in their first live show (Robert Plant also performed the song in 1999/2000 with his band Priory Of Brion). While they didn’t get the recognition they deserved at that time, over the years they have become highly regarded. Long Nights Of Summer is a great new three CD box set that gives them their just due with both the stereo and US promo-only mono versions of the album, singles, outtakes, demos and numerous tracks from BBC sessions (many never before released). Also included is the album Ride A Hustler’s Dream, which was released by a new lineup under the name Velvet Opera after frontman Dave Terry (aka Elmer Gantry) and guitarist Colin Foster left the band. Joining remaining members bassist John Ford and drummer Richard Hudson (also on sitar and tablas) were guitarist/vocalist Paul Brett and vocalist/guitarist Johnny Joyce.
Disc one starts with the stereo version of their eponymous release and the track “Intro”, which is just that, a minute long ragged, funky R&B rocker with Gantry introducing the members of the band. Exploding with fuzzed out guitars, “Mother Writes” is a catchy rocker with a hint of psychedelia reminiscent of The Who. The psychedelia continues with “Mary Jane”, a dreamy, laid-back track that pulses with a throbbing bass and nice keys running underneath. The next three tracks find them radically shifting direction. “I Was Cool” is a raw, jazzy blues cover of an Oscar Brown Jr tune that has a cool, almost campy, vibe, while the instrumental “Walter Sly Meets Bill Bailey” is a massively impressive instrumental that throws out everything from prog and jazz to psychedelia and freakbeat and “Air” is a hypnotic, middle eastern, psychedelic tune driven by Richard Hudson’s sitar playing. “Looking For A Happy Life” is a bouncy pop tune that sounds like you would expect a song with that title to sound, and their aforementioned debut single “Flames” is a hard driving track with a bit of a soul groove and some blistering guitar. Next up are a couple more gorgeous pop tunes with “What’s The Point Of Leaving”, which has a bit of a baroque pop vibe, and “Long Nights Of Summer”, a sixties melodic pop tune complemented with a string arrangement that will have you questioning how it wasn’t a huge hit. “Dream Starts” is pure psychedelia that is at times a bit reminiscent of The Beatles as it’s spinning and swirling with Gantry’s vocals fed through a Leslie speaker and complemented with horns, piano and even some kazoo. “Reactions Of A Young Man”, an interesting tune detailing a schoolboy’s attempt to end his relationship with a married woman, is a very musically layered track that at times is a bit reminiscent of early The Moody Blues. Closing the album is “Now She’s Gone”, another brilliant psychedelic cut, but with a darker edge. Disc one also contains twelve bonus tracks starting with the single version of “Flames” and it’s b-side “Salisbury Plain”, a spacey psych tune. The single version of “Mary Jane” is missing the spritely piano of the album version and is a bit darker, while it’s b-side “Dreamy” is a more laid-back psychedelic tune with Hudson on sitar again. Next up is the single “Volcano”, which was written by the songwriting team of Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley and was recorded the way the band wanted and not the way they had written it. It ended up being a decent raucous, straight-ahead rock tune, but still didn’t please the band and the songwriters were unhappy with it as well. It’s lack of success was a contributing factor to Gantry eventually leaving the band. Ironically the flipside “A Quick B” was written by the band and is a bluesy rocker that really works. “Talk of the Devil” was written by Eric Woolfson, who would later co-create The Alan Parsons Project, and was the title recording for a 1967 movie short. Recorded under the pseudonym The Illusion Of Happiness, it’s a really strong moody rocker with a hint of blues and folk. Next up are three studio out-takes from ’67 and ’68. “And I Remember” was written by early band member Jimmy Horowitz when they were still the Five Proud Walkers and is a catchy pop tune with a hint of soul and psychedelia, while “To Be With You” is a high energy rocker with some really interesting guitar work. Before he decided he didn’t like it “The Painter” was briefly a contender for an Elmer Gantry solo single. It’s an upbeat tune with horns and strings, but I can’t say I disagree with him as it’s a bit schlocky. Closing out the first disc are demos of “Salisbury Plain” and “Flames” that were taken from what is believed to be the sole surviving acetate and give an interesting look at the beginnings of these two cuts.
Opening disc two is the US promo only mono version of their debut. According to the liner notes, the stereo version that was released was a fold-up of the mono mix instead of the mono mix being a fold-down of the stereo mix which was the norm (this is explained in much greater detail in the CD booklet for those that are interested). In my opinion these mono recordings have a little more punch and clarity than the stereo recordings. Following the album are fifteen tracks taken from five various BBC Sessions. Alongside great renditions of many of their songs, a few of which as to be expected show up multiple times (“Flames” and “Mary Jane” appear three times), are outstanding covers of Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag”, which is a loose bluesy rocker with some outstanding guitar work, a ripping version of Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” and two hard-driving takes on Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”.
Disc three starts off with the Velvet Opera disc Ride A Hustler’s Dream, which opens with the minute long acoustic title track that has a bit of a Dylan vibe. Next up is a killer raw blues cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” that really showcases Paul Brett’s guitar work, followed by “Money By”, a nice laid-back tune with a psychedelic groove and a hint of The Byrds, and another cover with their foot-stomping, acoustic take on the traditional folk song “Black Jack Davy”. “Raise The Light” is an interesting sounding track with a laid-back psychedelic vibe that alternates Brett’s wah wah guitar with some really nice acoustic guitar. Over the next three tracks the band really shows some diversity. Hudson once again showcases his impressive sitar and tabla playing on the mellow middle eastern sounds of “Raga”, while “Anna Dance Square” sounds like something from a funky square dance, and “Depression” is a quirky, almost Country and Western track. “Don’t You Realise” is a bluesy freakbeat rocker with more of Brett’s outstanding guitar work that is at times reminiscent of Hendrix, and starting with a child’s spoken word intro, “Warm Day In July” is a beautiful folk tune comprised primarily of vocals, acoustic guitar and flute. Closing track is a blistering slightly proggy instrumental cover of “Eleanor Rigby” that’s expanded with solos that really allow everyone to show their virtuosity. Rounding out disc three are seven more bonus tracks starting off with single versions of “Anna Dance Square” and “Don’t You Realise”. In early 1970 the band called it a day and Ford and Hudson joined The Strawbs. Later that year, original guitarist Colin Forster started Velvet Opera back up with a new band consisting of vocalist Dave MacTavish (Tintern Abbey), bassist Colin Bass drummer Mike Fincher, who recorded one single before breaking up. While the a-side, “She Keeps Giving Me These Feelings” has a really strong vocal performance and some nice acoustic guitar, the song itself is a fairly generic pop song. The flipside “There’s A Hole In My Pocket” is a bluesy rocker that’s a little bit better, but still misses the mark. Closing out the disc are three more BBC Sessions recordings. First up are two from the Ride A Hustler’s Dream lineup with “Statesboro Blues” and “Water Wheel”, a really pretty acoustic folk tune that was never recorded. The sound quality here isn’t the best, but they are definitely nice additions to the collection. Lastly is “She Keeps Giving Me These Feelings” from the MacTavish fronted version of the band. Rounded out with a very comprehensive thirty-two page booklet detailing the band’s history, I highly recommended this great sounding, very comprehensive look into Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera.