Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera – ‘Long Nights Of Summer: The Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera Anthology’ (2022)

    Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera – ‘Long Nights Of Summer: The Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera Anthology’ (2022)

    Long recognized as a band who truly deserved much better than they received, late 1960s British psychedelic rock quartet Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera left behind a musical legacy which has until now remained as neglected as it was by record buyers during the group’s original lifespan.

    Cherry Red Records brings the group into a most deserved spotlight with the release of a new three disc collection which gathers the original quartet’s self-titled 1968 LP, presented in both stereo and mono, along with single sides, previously unreleased BBC Radio One performances, demo versions and an abandoned side intended as an Elmer Gantry solo single. In what could be considered a tale of two bands the anthology also includes the post-Gantry 1969 LP “Ride A Hustler’s Dream” along with single sides and BBC sessions recorded under the shortened moniker of Velvet Opera. The collection is completed by both sides of a single and a BBC performance from a 1970 resurrection of Velvet Opera by original lead guitarist Colin Forster making “Long Nights Of Summer” the absolutely definitive documentation of the group in all its incarnations.

    Disc one opens with the thirteen tracks comprising “Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera” which saw UK release in May 1968 on CBS’ Direction Record imprint, followed three months later by its US release on CBS’ Epic Records subsidiary. The group consisted of Gantry (born Dave Terry) on lead vocals and harmonica, Colin Forster on lead guitar, John Ford on bass and Richard Hudson on drums, sitar and tablas. Twelve of the LP’s tunes are originals with all members making contributions. The album is a wonderful mixture of concise (none longer than three minutes and a few seconds), highly melodic songs filled with infectious hooks and a clean, commercially accessible sound. The first track “Intro” does just that as Gantry introduces the band members. “Mother Writes” is a fuzz filled pop rocker with Hudson and Ford laying down a heavy groove. “Mary Jane”, Gantry’s ode to marijuana has a lilting melody, but was banned from regular rotation by the BBC upon single release due to its drug references despite the band performing the tune numerous times on BBC One radio shows such as John Peel’s “Top Gear”. Hudson and Ford’s “Dream Starts” is a classic piece of British psychedelia with Gantry’s vocals run through a Leslie speaker and a gorgeous piano interlude. Forster and Hudson’s “Air” features the latter on sitar, trippy lyrics and hypnotic vocals by Gantry, showing Hudon’s love of The Beatles and the influence of “Sgt. Pepper” on the band. Gantry’s “Flames” was the song that started it all for the group when released as a single in 1967 and showcases Forster’s penchant for short, fiery guitar solos. The song got a lot of radio airplay and was part of Led Zeppelin’s early live repertoire, but sadly failed to chart. “What’s The Point Of Leaving” is an Idle Race-esque melodic pop number. “Reactions Of A Younger Man” is a moody tale of a young man’s affair with an older, married woman, with Hudson’s sitar and Forster’s acoustic guitar adding texture to Gantry’s echoed vocals. Gantry and Ford’s album closer “Now She’s Gone” is a Beatlesque tale of lost love featuring beautiful Gantry vocals and a driving beat. The bonus material starts with the single version of “Flames” and its non-LP b-side, the mid-tempo “Salisbury Plain” with Forster’s lead guitar line and solo especially of note. The single version of “Mary Jane” is likewise followed by its non-LP b-side “Dreamy”, a tasty slab of pop psych with Forster’s acoustic guitar, Hudson’s sitar and Gantry’s delicate vocals on display. “Volcano”, a Howard/Blaikley (The Tremeloes) composition reluctantly recorded by the band, is a nice pop rocker thanks to the band’s reworking of the demo, but displeased Gantry so much that he left the band shortly after its release. The bottom-side of “Volcano”, the aptly titled “A Quick ‘B” was a group composition, a hot rocker with a Yardbirds vibe thanks to Forster’s rave up guitar work and Gantry’s harmonica. The song is a great indicator of the unfulfilled potential of Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera. “Talk Of The Devil”, an Eric Woolfson composition, was the title track to a 27 minute short film and was recorded under the pseudonym of The Illusion Of Happiness. The hot rocker features a soaring mid-tune solo by Forster to accompany its Hollies-like feel. Two unreleased studio tracks, from 1967 and 1968 are further evidence of the band’s potential. “And I Remember” is a melodic pop psych rocker with more gorgeous vocals from Gantry, while “To Be With You” was one of the first recordings with Paul Brett on lead guitar following Colin Forster’s departure. The track has a space rock intro and Brett shines on tremolo rhythm guitar while contributing an outstanding mid-tune solo, the song reminiscent of Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle” blended with The Who’s “I Can’t Reach You”, another indication of the band’s potential and a real puzzler as to why the song wasn’t released. “The Painter” was a proposed Elmer Gantry solo release that was shelved at the vocalist’s request but is included for historical value. The disc closes with demo versions of “Salisbury Plain” and “Flames”, the former being considerably longer in duration than the released version.

    Disc two opens with the US promo-only mono version of “Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera” released in October 1968 on Epic Records. This rare treat is even more special as the album, commercially released only in stereo, was actually an original mono recording “folded up” into stereo, in contrast to the much more common folding down of stereo recordings into mono. The dedicated mono recording was deemed mandatory since the majority of record buyers in 1968 did not have stereo components and mono compatibility was considered a priority. The mono version is powerful, with an “in your face” quality that is at once appealing and pleasing. The fifteen remaining tracks on the disc are from five appearances on BBC Radio One, recorded between November 1967 and mid-1968. The first session includes takes on the cream of “Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera” beginning with a trippy take on “Dream Starts” with a feedback drenched outro. Hudson’s sitar is front and center throughout “Reactions Of A Young Man”. The band glides through “Flames” with Forster’s mid-tune solo highlighting the performance. A snappy take on “Mother Writes” features nice tempo changes and showcases the band’s melodic sensibilities. A January 1968 “Saturday Club” offers performances of the group’s first two singles, “Mary Jane” and “Flames” both delivered effortlessly. An April 1968 “Top Gear” presentation is notable for the bluesy cover of Country Joe and The Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” full of tasty Hudson drum fills, a Ford bass solo and the jazzy guitar performance of Forster. Following an encore presentation of “Mary Jane” the band performs two of their strongest numbers. “Dreamy” is delicately delivered in folkish fashion with striking vocals from Gantry, while Hudson’s sitar highlights an Eastern influenced acid rock performance of “Air” with its Yardbirds/Beatles vibe, a blending of “Heart Full Of Soul” and “Within You, Without You”. The May 1968 “Top Of The Pops” show which was broadcast in July features one of the first appearances of Paul Brett on lead guitar and is notable for the band’s fiery cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” with a deceptively gentle acoustic guitar intro leading into an all out, balls to the wall sonic attack led by Brett’s lead guitar line and two solos, while the rhythm section of Ford and Hudson pound out the heavy rhythm, a most inspired take indeed. Likewise, the group’s cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” stands up nicely when measured against better known takes such as those of The Move and The Who, with the tune’s insistent riff complementing Brett’s tastefully restrained lead line and extended solo, Gantry’s vocals blending perfectly into the mix. The band also delivers a relaxed version of “Mary Jane”. The disc closes with a mid-1968 “Saturday Club” appearance featuring a take on the group’s signature song “Flames” and an introless, slightly more restrained delivery of “All Along The Watchtower” with Gantry’s vocals more prominent, but Brett’s guitar taking control for the final thirty seconds.

    Disc three offers the tale of the second band, with Forster and Gantry having exited the group, replaced by the already mentioned Paul Brett on lead guitar and vocals and Johnny Joyce on twelve string guitar and vocals. The first eleven tracks comprised the September 1969 LP “Ride A Hustler’s Dream”. The album’s title track is an acoustic number with Dylanesque vocals by Joyce. Brett’s blues influence is apparent in a cover of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” with his guitar to the fore. Despite the change in personnel and musical direction “Money Boy”, a band composition, exemplifies the new group’s talent with Brett’s guitar tones and Joyce’s vocals blending beautifully with the relaxed groove of Ford and Hudson, making for a most melodic experience. “Black Jack Davy”, a traditional folk tune, is delivered quite competently. Brett and Hudson’s “Raise The Light” blends electric wah wah work with country tinged acoustic guitar, a nice mix of light and heavy. Hudson’s five and a half minute “Raga” is a throwback to the Elmer Gantry days by way of Hudson’s sitar and tabla performances. “Anna Dance Square” is a revved up hoe down with Brett’s electric guitar delivered precisely and delicately, his restrained solo playing the song out. “Depression” is a folk rock tune written by Ford about his battle against Churchill’s “black dog”. The band composed “Don’t You Realise” features more wah wah, as Brett’s guitar does a call and response with the rhythm section of Ford and Hudson before he solos the song to a close. “Warm Day In July ” has a child-spoken intro, its delicate acoustic guitar and vocals supplemented by flute. A progressive rock instrumental cover of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” is led by Brett’s electric guitar, with Ford and Hudson holding down the bottom end nicely. The bonus tracks begin with the single versions of “Anna Go Square” and “Don’t You Realize”. “Ride A Hustler’s Dream” did not perform well, and by mid-1970 Velvet Opera broke up with Ford and Hudson joining the Strawbs, while Brett and Joyce went their own ways. Later in 1970 original guitarist Colin Forster re-formed Velvet Opera with vocalist David MacTavish, bassist Colin Bass and drummer Mike Fincher. The quartet released a single on the Spark Records label pairing two MacTavish tunes, “She Keeps Giving Me These Feelings” c/w “There’s A Hole In My Pocket”. The a-side is a delicate folk tune with acoustic guitar and gorgeous vocals, while the b-side is an electric, pop influenced rocker with Forster’s guitar featured. The single failed to sell, however, and the Velvet Opera name was retired for good in February 1971. The disc closes with two BBC appearances. The first is from a May 1970 “David Symonds Show” and features the “Ride A Hustler’s Dream” lineup performing their signature song “Statesboro Blues” as well as an otherwise unrecorded tune titled “Water Wheel”, a traditional folk tune, that is a showcase for Brett’s delicate guitar work. The disc, and box set, closes with a November 1970 performance of “She Keeps Giving Me These Feelings” by the Forster fronted final incarnation of Velvet Opera. Forster’s lead line and MacTavish’s vocals, supplemented by female vocalists, lead this short, breezy take which sadly is the only recording to survive from this BBC appearance.

    The three discs of “Long Nights Of Summer: The Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera Anthology” come in cardboard mini-LP sleeves which slide into an outer slipcase. The box set features a full color thirty two page booklet with an extensive essay by compiler David Wells. The booklet also includes full track annotations and is lavishly illustrated with photos of the band, album and single releases, press clippings, posters and other memorabilia. Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera sounds wonderful thanks to the mastering job of Oli Hemingway at The Wax Works. The box set will be of interest to fans of late 60s/early 70s psychedelic rock, pop rock and classic rock music in general, and comes most highly recommended.

    Kevin Rathert

    Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera – ‘Long Nights Of Summer: The Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera Anthology’ (Cherry Red Records 2022)


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