Blonde On Blonde Rebirth / Reflections On A Life

Blonde On Blonde – Rebirth / Reflections On A Life

Blonde On Blonde – Rebirth

Blonde On Blonde, despite sounding like they lived on the corner of Haight-Asbury actually hailed from the far less glamorous surroundings of Newport, South Wales. Like many bands of the turn of the ’60s into the ’70s, they had started out earlier in the transformative decade in their home territory as an American blues and soul influenced outfit, later moving to London. That move came with a name change from the Cellar Set to the Dylan-inspired Blonde On Blonde. After their first album, Contrasts in 1969, their singer left, and the band returned to South Wales to rehearse for Rebirth, their second release. According to David Thomas, who eventually landed the job, their auditioning process prior to going home had included rejecting both Rod Stewart and Sally Oldfield. Talk about casting your net wide!

David Thomas’s delivery is reminiscent of a slightly less tremulous Jack Bruce, as he backs the band’s mix of folk, psych and proto-progressive rock. Thomas, some years younger than the rest of the band, who with his flowing curly blonde locks could easily have been mistaken for the similarly aged Robert Plant, formed a strong writing partnership with the group’s musical lynchpin, Gareth Johnson, who on this evidence was an extremely versatile guitarist.

The album’s centrepiece, the 12-minute Colour Questions charges along in a haze of acid-fried guitar and Khachaturian classical motifs, the latter already used on Circles, and David Thomas’s Aquarian musings at the “chaos and disharmony” of modern living. Quaint, but fun nonetheless. The album ends with a change into epic piano-led balladry, a nice touch, with a song co-written by Johnson and bass guitarist/keyboard player Richard John.

Rebirth was released in 1970, a year when all music not aimed at the pop charts was simply called “underground”. This refreshing lack of pigeonholing led to a situation where anything goes, as fans and journalists had yet to set the parameters to what would later define progressive rock, hard rock, heavy metal, and the countless sub-genres that soon followed. It was either “happening” or it wasn’t.

Blonde On Blonde seemed to be still looking for a consistent style with this album, and as a result it comes across as a tad unfocused. Also, with the benefit of not far short of 50 years’ (gulp!) hindsight, it could be said that the record was maybe a little too in thrall to the psychedelic era, already three years down the line and fast receding into history as far as the hip were concerned in those mercurial times. However, Gareth Johnson’s sterling plank spanking saves the day and Rebirth is a certainly nothing if not an interesting period piece.

01. Castles In The Sky (3:29)
02. Broken Hours (3:40)
03. Heart Without A Home (5:27)
04. Time Is Passing (2:40)
05. Circles (7:22)
06. November (3:09)
07. Colour Questions (12:07)
08. You’ll Never Know Me/Release (7:46)
~ Bonus tracks:
09. Circles (single version) (3:30)
10. Castles In The Sky (alternate version) (3:24)
11. Time Is Passing (alternate version) (3:45)

Total Time – 56:26

David Thomas – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Bass Guitar, Harmonica
Gareth Johnson – Guitars, Electronic Effects
Richard John – Bass Guitar, Keyboards
Leslie Hicks – Drums, Percussion

Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue#: ECLEC 2572
Year of Release: 2017

Rebirth – Cherry Red Product Page

Blonde On Blonde – Reflections On A Life

Reflections On A Life is why I picked these two reissues for review, as this album is yet another from my formative years of vinyl junkiedom, where, barely out of short trousers and severely lacking funds beyond those raised from a paper round, all my early LP purchases were either budget reissues or came from remainder bins, this being one of the latter. I still have this record, although to be honest, it has been many years since I had played it, until this review CD came along.

As I remember, it was the tasteful sleeve art that made me buy it on a whim, as the budget supermarket this came from did not have a listening booth. It barely had a roof, actually, it was well dodgy! Like all my early purchases it was a punt, and thankfully, as I sit here reminding myself of its grooves, the bet paid off. Well, it was evens at least.

The band had come on in bounds since Rebirth, and from the disorienting opener Gene Machine, less than two minutes of arrhythmic heartbeats, crying babies and Gareth Johnson’s Woodie Guthrie impression, you know this is of another level to Rebirth. The seemingly harmless boogie of the following I Don’t Care, with its chorus “I don’t care what the people say, I’m gonna love you anyway”, takes on an altogether darker hue when David Thomas reveals in the booklet essay that it “dealt with the whole subject of incest”. While we’re here, kudos to Malcolm Dome for his usual high standard of writing in the comprehensive booklets that accompany both these reissues.

As you might guess from the album sleeve art, its title, and a few of the track titles, this is Blonde On Blonde’s concept album. Thankfully, they now had the chops to pull it off. Recorded at the famous Rockfield studios in Monmouthshire, the Mellotron on the album was contributed by the studio’s engineer, Kips Brown, who if you know your history was one of that instrument’s players in the fine early prog band Spring.

The replacement of bassist Richard Hopkins (aka Richard John on Rebirth) with a fine acoustic finger-picker who learned the bass for his new role, the addition of Graham Davies to the line-up seems to have given the band a new confidence. Although once again self-produced like the previous album, the sound is fuller, and the songs and arrangements are much improved.

Full of light and shade, Reflections On A Life was both lyrically and musically a vast improvement on Rebirth, my favourite track being the rather ominous The Rut, which includes a storming solo from Johnson, and puts me in mind of the Groundhogs. This skewed modernistic blues approach continues into the riotously psychotic and very dark Happy Families. The Age of Aquarius is definitely over. In complete contrast is the fine acoustic bluesy lament Ain’t It Sad Too, a more traditionally arranged number. These stark changes in style do not jar, for the whole is a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

This is a fine album and well worth the 75p or whatever it was I paid for it back in 1972 or 73. Given that my purchase was only two years at most after the album’s release, you can correctly guess that Blonde On Blonde were yet another frayed and sadly forgotten stitch in the tapestry, and it is a credit to the good people at Esoteric Records that they continue to release the overlooked records from the most creatively productive period in that soon to be historical footnote we old fogies simply know as rock music.

01. Gene Machine (2:11)
02. I Don’t Care (2:40)
03. Love Song (6:45)
04. Bar Room Blues (5:30)
05. Sad Song for an Easy Lady (4:14)
06. Ain’t It Sad Too (4:25)
07. The Bargain (4:16)
08. The Rut (5:29)
09. Happy Families (3:50)
10. No. 2 Psychological Decontamination Unit (3:03)
11. Chorale (Forever) (4:53)
~ Bonus track:
12. Sad Song for an Easy Lady (single version) (3:34)

Total Time – 50:58

David Thomas – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Bass Guitar, Harmonica
Gareth Johnson – Guitars, Electronic Effects
Gareth Davies – Acoustic Guitar, Lead Guitar, Bass Guitar, Banjo, Vocals
Leslie Hicks – Drums, Percussion

Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue#: ECLEC 2573
Year of Release: 2017

Reflections On A Life – Cherry Red Product Page