THIS is a gem of an album that few will know about and even fewer will have heard.
Okay, so it’s short on accessible tunes by today’s standards, although on its release in 1979 far worse made it into the top ten.
What caught my ear back in the early 1980s when I first listened to it was that it was filled to the brim with Olympic-level rhythmic gymnastics of the percussive kind. Michael Giles, who was a crowning glory in the early incarnation of King Crimson, is on top form on the tubs here.
His ability to switch time-signatures effortlessly, his dynamics and sheer groove make this one of my guilty pleasures.
He makes a formidable rhythm section pairing with John G Perry. There was a mutual respect and understanding for a start, born out of their work on Kevin Ayers’ 1974 offering, The Confession Of Doctor Dream And Other Stories. They’d also guested on each others’ solo albums before uniting on Anthony Phillips’ previous commercial attempt, 1978’s Wise After The Event.
Phillips was a founding father of rock band Genesis, a hip young guitarist with a bright future ahead of him until he could no longer control his stage fright.
He’d written a musical tour de force, The Geese And The Ghost, with fellow Genesis alumni, Mike Rutherford. It was a glorious concept album, all 12-string guitar, orchestral interludes and delightful vocals, with Phil Collins on lead vocals before he took that role with Genesis. But the planned 1974 release was delayed for three years, by which time punk was ‘in’ and longer, thoughtful works were ‘out’.
The fact that The Geese And The Ghost was so strong musically was ignored by record company execs, who allowed Phillips to record ‘his’ music as long as he produced a more commercial offering for them in return – a sort of ‘one for me, one for them’ deal.
He was focussed on his Private Parts And Pieces series of soundscapes, guitar concertos, piano sonatas and wistful ballads sprinkled here and there, while they wanted hits.
And that comes across loud and clear on Sides. The positives include cracking riffs, thudding backing tracks, melodic choruses and clever lyrics; but on the negative there is the sense that he was throwing the kitchen sink at it in a half-hearted manner and almost a ‘biting the hand that feeds you’.There is a sense that he wasn’t comfortable in the role of pop star.
There’s too much going on in the simple ‘pop’ songs. Producer Rupert Hine had had some chart success with Quantum Jump’s surprise hit, Lone Ranger, and had the nous to channel Phillips’ musicality and maybe, with the right backing, there could have been a minor hit. Certainly the quality of personnel on show demanded a better showing.
Yet the fact Phillips didn’t want to tour or promote meant that the record company execs didn’t throw as much weight behind the album as they could have. So what we have is an album of highs and lows, of delicious musicianship and some well-crafted songs.
The opening track, Um And Aargh, is a comical dig at the A&R men who held the power and could stifle the best creatives. It has everything for Giles and Perry to showcase their skills – rough power, gentle touches and a simple groove to hold it together.
There’s a disco-feel to Side Door, one of the nine tracks on the original UK release, and when Giles takes a back seat, such as on Lucy Will and Holy Deadlock, there is a ‘holy trinity’ of percussionists in Ray Cooper, Frank Ricotti and Morris Pert taking centre stage.
Re-released and enhanced versions on CD have hinted at the fun had in making the album and it appears everyone was keen to give it their best shot.
Side Two was always my favourite, with the more orchestral, progressive nature of Phillips to the fore.
The opener, Sisters Of Remindum, is a fine instrumental with a powerhouse performance from Giles; jazz rock meets classic concerto.
Tailender, Nightmare, a rabid cross between Tubular Bells-era Mike Oldfield and the more poppy version of Brand X, offers a tantalising glimpse of what might have been if the dreaded A&R Man hadn’t decided ‘this is much too good for the people’. Elegant motifs coupled with frenzied action and then laid back chill; groove purposely lost, purposefully regained.
Sandwiched between is Bleak House, a sweeping, romantic ballad and Magdalen, a love song with Phillips’ trademark 12 string guitar giving way to a backing track that had me confused for years.
The drumming was so wonderfully different to anything else I’d heard at that point, more akin to Giles’ later experimental stuff. I was a spotty know-nothing teenager and honestly thought I’d bought a copy with fatal flaws.
I remember taping a two pence piece to the needle in the hope of hearing the real chorus, but no, it was Giles throwing percussive curveballs like grenades on a range.
Explosive stuff and a drumming performance I always felt sad didn’t get more of an audience.