Vastly expanded ‘Third Ear Band’ fries your mind


In all honesty, I would probably never be listening to the Third Ear Band if they had not been part of the underground rock scene in the UK during the late 60s and early 70s. But there they were on the Harvest imprint. And they were indeed very much psychedelic voyagers, yet had nothing musically in common with anyone else. The fact that they did concerts with Pink Floyd, Blind Faith, Kevin Ayers and even the Rolling Stones, and that their albums got good reviews in the rock music press, says more about the open-mindedness of that era than anything else.

The Third Ear Band’s music consists of themed, improvised drones influenced by eastern ragas, deconstructed chamber music, free jazz and a generous helping of dark, archaic folk. Calling them an English Tangerine Dream probably confuses more than it elucidates, but in some sense they were exploring similar unknowable spaces, although primarily with acoustic – rather than electronic – instruments. 

Hence, instead of the almighty Mellotron there is the oboe, the cello, the viola and the violin. Particularly the oboe is a standout ingredient and it sounds quite the part. Add hand drums to that and you have an unusual recipe for mesmerising and fascinating music.

A word that is inevitably comes up in relation to the Third Ear Band is “pagan”, yet their music is not hauntological, at least not in the sense that it tries to rediscover a parallel, pagan England. True, things like alchemy and elements harken back to pre-Christian thinking, but the Third Ear Band seem more aligned with ancient Greece or Egypt; or maybe even with those distant constellations many say the great pyramids are pointing at.

The ‘Elements 1970-71’ collection couples their second and self-titled ‘Third Ear Band’ album about the four elements – air, earth, water and fire – with some previously released and many unreleased recordings that bookend the timeline of the album.

Most fascinating here is the inclusion of the full ‘Abelard & Heloise’ German film soundtrack. Although it has been previously issued using oboe player Paul Minns’ tape copy, it is now remastered from the newly discovered master tapes. It sounds totally amazing, and majestic. On parts 4 and 5 in particular, the deep cello tones really vibrate quite elementally in the room if you turn up the volume a bit. 

Also, given that the hand drums are much less prominent than on the elements album, the music becomes less hypnotic (read: sleep-inducing) and instead floats in the air in front of you.

Among the unreleased recordings, it is especially fascinating to hear the aborted pre-Macbeth recordings of the announced and even advertised but never released “The Dragon Wakes”. The recordings were made by a quite different line-up, but at least on the November 1970 Abbey Road sessions, the transition seems very smooth, and successfully introduces some electric instrumentation in the mix as well. However, the album sessions in February 1971 showcase song-based structures and an almost funky sound with a traditional drum set that I find less interesting.

Taken together with the ‘Earth’ and ‘The Sea (Fire)’ outtakes from the elements album sessions that give a fascinating alternative view and the wealth of BBC sessions, this is quite a massive release, and a highly recommended one.

However, don’t try to listen to all of it in one go, as it could honestly fry your mind. And I mean that literally. As Paul Minns states in the sleeve notes about the aborted “The Dragon Wakes” album: “Paul Buckmaster […] flipped during the recording sessions. On acid, he ran out in the street screaming about the Gurjeffian Eye and I believe stripping off his clothes. He was never the same person afterward and the recordings went no further.”

If you listen too much all at once and overstrain your third ear, it could happen to you as well.

The Plastic Penny arcade of 1968


The Monkees are not the only manufactured 1960s pop group; there were probably quite a few. Labels scouted songs, recorded them with session musicians, and if they had a hit they quickly put together a band and toured it. Plastic Penny were such a band, as you might even gather from the band name…

‘Everything I Am’ – the B-side of the Box Tops’ 1967 debut single –  was recorded by Brian Keith together with session musicians at the suggestion of Page One label boss Larry Page and released in December of that year. By the beginning of 1968 it had reached no. 6 in the UK singles chart and a Plastic Penny band was hastily assembled.

A number of singles and two albums followed before the plastic finally melted down in the summer heat of 1969. However, sole “original” member Brian Keith himself had left already in May 1968, after their follow-up single and fist album ‘Two Sides Of A Penny’ had not managed to make any further impact.

Grapefruit Records have now kindly collected their entire output on a 3CD set appropriately titled ‘Everything I Am – The Complete Plastic Penny’. Apart from the first single from December 1967, a mid-69 outtake and their last single from July 1969, all of it is from 1968. And that is significant in its own right, since it shows a band too busy being caught up in the here and now of touring and recording to probably even notice that they are running the entire gamut from soppy ballads via rock’n’roll covers to instrumental workouts and the occasional yet quite tedious drum solo. 

They might have thought that they were chasing a hit, but it seems to meet that they were rather running too quickly for an increasingly confused audience to follow.

Instrumentally, Plastic Penny never evolved beyond a pop combo, and they attacked the varied styles with the same basic sound – an impression amplified by the fact that they used few studio embellishments beyond the odd string section. But what they lack in sophistication, they make up by seemingly breathing the energy of 1968.

Still, given the rather varied quality of their output, it makes a lot of sense to have everything collected in a box, so that you can cherry pick the good stuff. And there are some really excellent things here, although that first hit single isn’t one of them.

On the first album, the standout track is instead a golden psychedelic nugget titled ‘Mrs. Grundy’ complete with long instrumental outro and end screams. But there are some other great tracks, such as ‘Wake Me Up’, ‘Genevieve’, ‘So Much Older Now’ and ‘It’s A Good Thing’ although Brian Keith’s croon gets a bit taxing after a while, and he unfortunately sings on the majority of the tracks.

‘It’s A Good Thing’ is also the highlight among the first batch of BBC sessions where Brian Keith is still with the band. But then organist Paul Raymond takes over as singer and that makes the remaining BBC sessions more enjoyable, including the take of ‘So Much Older Now’ from the debut album. There are also great BBC session versions of ‘Your Way To Tell Me Go’ and the wonderfully intense ‘Give Me Money’ from the follow up album ‘Currency’ – and album that otherwise just like the first album is a hit and miss affair that is best served up for cherry picking in a box like this.

Activities then wound down due to lack of public interest. But the band petered out with a real bang: their final single is absolutely great. Although the A-side has previously been compiled with reasonably good sound quality on ‘Fairytales Can Come True vol. 4’, I only have the fantastic B-side reworking of ‘Genevieve’ as a crackly needle drop on the ‘A Walk In Alice’s Garden’ bootleg. So getting it in full technicolor sound distortion here is a real treat. Wow!

Speaking of sound quality, it is generally something of a revelation here, although Grapefruit are scant on source details apart from acknowledging that the BBC sessions are from transcription discs. The best previous editions I have are the Airmail paper sleeve releases of both Plastic Penny albums, but with this box the band literally step into my living room. It is that big a difference. 

Furthermore, ‘Two Sides Of A Penny’ is presented in both mono and stereo versions which I am sure will delight collectors, although I have to say that I am untrendy enough to prefer the stereo version!

Vivid debut by Duke 72


Contemporary Scottish band Big Hogg are classified as “Canterbury scene” on Although they definitely are influenced by the 1970s, the genre-description raised my expectations too high and initially made it harder for me to get into this great band.

And now Big Hogg offshoot Duke 72 also comes wrapped in genretalia that I find a bit hard to grasp. The band, that apart from Big Hogg members includes drummer Johnny Mitchell on visit from Australia and ex-Trembling Bells Lavinia Blackwall, “evokes the spirit of 1970’s space rock with a Canterbury twist” according to the promo material. That description literally made me stick my fingers in my ears. In order to try to clear my ear canals from wax, that is. It didn’t help.

But don’t get me wrong. I love this album. It is smashing. And it evokes the early 70s for sure, although coming off as more jam rock and proto-prog sounding to my (probably confused and half-deaf) ears, with a funky horn rock vibe at times.

In other words, it isn’t very far away from the mothership. But I think I like the Duke 72 album even better! The vocals here are just superb, and I like the way they muddy up the mix and make the whole thing very organic and analogue sounding.

Supposedly, much of the album was both written and recorded by Big Hogg main man Justin Lumsden and Johnny Mitchell during a 9 hour hyper-productive tracking session, without prior rehearsals. 

The more jam based tracks could indeed have been done like that, but there are also several intricate sections that I am sure took some time to come up with. Also, the vocal interplay is often unusual and rather well thought-through. Just writing the interweaving lyrics would take a lot more time than 9 hours. But whatever the inception mythology, there is definitely carpe diem spontaneity here strong enough to pull you out of your shoes and make your head hit the ceiling. Vivid stuff, indeed!

The album starts out with the short and snappy ‘Weekend by the Sea’ that succinctly introduces all the album’s strengths, including a good melodic hook-line, 70s style voices with strong individuality, and a couple of time shifts to keep things interesting.

Next track ‘Trapped’ starts with some quite heavy guitars and an echo laden vocal pronouncing ominous words like “destroyer”. But just when you think this might be some sort of heavy glam, there is a shift and a poppier vocal section takes over. The section shift repeats and leads into a guitar-led instrumental interlude. The two vocal styles then come together in a quite nice way.

‘Rust and Stars’ again has some incredibly nice and theatrical vocal interplay, this time between male and female voices, over a somewhat funky melody. Great stuff.

The songs around the middle of the album are more in the jam rock vein and might in fact be the ones that originate from the 9 hour session; at least they strike me as less complex. ‘Backbone of a Jellyfish’ has a rolling riff that is repeated over and over by guitar and horns below another irresistible vocal melody. Then comes ‘Isadora’ that also builds from a rather simple musical idea. It is still quite nice although maybe a tad on the long side. Then there is the beautiful ‘Oxblood and Rings’ with relaxed guitar strumming and soothing horns followed by some hushed flute. On ‘Evil Genius’ we are back to the funky rhythms and the slightly ominous vocal tone. Again, not an extremely complex track.

If I were to look for Canterbury influences, I would probably go for the “pa pa pa” female vocalising at the beginning of ‘Antique Antiques’. Lumsden then takes over vocal duties in a very convincing way on the more mellow continuation of the track. The guitar playing here is heavy and riffy in proto-prog kind of way.

Finally, the album literally goes out with a bang; or at least the last track ‘Out Of Reach’ starts with one. It is the longest track on the album and doesn’t have much melodic progression. It could at long last be accused for a bit of space rocking, and does have a rather spaced out ending.

In comparison, the prog rock element is easier to find. Not in the music maybe, but on the cover, which depicts a bunch of young tolkienesque elves climbing around in a big tree, like a snapshot from a physical eduction class in Rivendell High School. And the title of the album: The Mid Shires Herald.

Don’t ask me where they came up that – but don’t let it put you off. What’s inside is pure gold.

A little Twink and a lot of Robert Halcrow


When I recently ordered the new Twink vinyl single that has been released on Gare du Nord Records, in order to save on postage, I also got the self-titled debut CD by District Repair Depot that I had previously overlooked.

Little did I know how well they would fit together.

But let us start from the beginning. Twink, in case you don’t know, was a central figure in the British psychedelic pop movement. He was the drummer in the In-Crowd, together with other luminaries such as Steve Howe and Keith West. They soon changed their name to Tomorrow, and made a near-perfect psychedelic pop album before breaking up. Twink then played with The Pretty Things on the classic ’S.F. Sorrow’ before making a solo LP and then moving on to the Pink Fairies. 

The rest, as they say, is post-history, and I haven’t really been following the various subsequent Twink releases. For this reason, I was not sure what to expect from the ‘Brand New Morning /Dreams Turn Into Rainbows’. Suffice to say, I was blown away. Totally.

The A side is a psychedelic pop nugget that would fit nicely in 1968 and has a clear Barrett-era Pink Floyd influence. Very catchy, with slightly deadpan vocals, and an incredibly nice Mellotron. The B-side ‘Dreams Turn Into Rainbows’ is more hippyish and in line with what I would expect from Twink; spaced-out and with lyrics that are quite fuzzy at the edges. Nevertheless, it is a great track and again the production is spot on for this type of music, including the plaintive Mellotron.

It is so good, that I immediately want to play it again. It isn’t until I turn the single over to play ‘Brand New Morning’ from the start, that I notice it is a co-write between Robert Halcrow and Twink. So that explains the poppy feel of it!

Robert Halcrow has had a band called Picturebox for several years, where he plays pop music influenced by the post-punk era of the 80s and bands like XTC. I always buy their albums, and the latest one, ‘Escapes’, that came out in 2018, is their best yet. It has many really great tracks, such as the sarcastic opener ‘Stumble’, the more introspective ‘Siren’ or the driving pop of ‘I Got the Pox’ with its chaotic and strung-out outro. But my favourite may just be the strange circular tale of ‘The Vicar’s Dog’.

I then went on to play the other record that I had ordered together with the Twink single. It immediately made me sit up straight and listen. Hooky pop songs that don’t make a lot of noise but are totally charmed. Quite indebted to the 1960’s but with a relaxed, almost rural feel to them that both soothe and fill you with wonder. Wow! 

What the hell is this? It turns out that District Repair Depot is again Robert Halcrow, this time together with Stephen Evans. I browse around the internet for a while, but find very little mention of this rather magical little album; it seems I am not the only person who overlooked it upon release. Time to make amends!

Although the songwriting here is top-notch throughout, ‘Flat Stanley’ has all the components of a classic psych-pop song, including a barmy melody with unforgettable story-telling lyrics.

That song alone makes this a must-have album. But before I even have time to wrap my head around the rest of it, my inbox bings with a message from Bandcamp saying that District Repair Depot are about to release a new EP. 

It turns out to be a 4-track EP, called Argy-BARGY, and two of the tracks are already available with the pre-order.

The title track, ‘Argy-Bargy’ is back to the 80s Picturebox style and has an itchy new wave XTC melody, whereas ‘(The Word of) Autumn Feelings’ has that contagious 60s feel again while at the same time taking everything nice and easy. Both of these tracks are incredibly nice, although I might prefer the latter one. Can’t wait to hear the other tracks on the EP upon their release on the 8th of March!

Eastern Western music from Lefty Wright


One of my favourite albums of 2014 was ‘Songs From the Portal’ by Dundee multi-instrumentalist and sitar player Paul Lefty Wright. That album was as sprawling and wide-eyed as it was unexpected in its treatment of pop music. Playing it today, it still feels incredibly fresh in its unconventional use of conventional building blocks.

After five long years, Paul is back again, this time with The 3rd Eye Flute Band. And musically, there are very few connections. For starters, it is all instrumental. I must say that I miss the vocals, since the lyrics on ‘Songs From the Portal’ were great, and had some truly amazing stories to tell.

But luckily, the band name happens to be such a story in itself. It seems that Paul wanted to learn playing the metal flute, and a friend told him he should buy a Yamaha SL2 for £800. As Paul was sitting in his sofa dosing off in the evening, he thought the price was totally out of his budget. But just as his eyelids got heavy, he saw an image of the flute in the window of a local thrift shop in his mind’s eye. The next morning, he went there and of course it was there. It was in fact an LS2, for only £90.

He started playing and was an unusually quick learner, to the point that he is now participating on demos for Paul Weller’s next album both on flute and sitar.

With anyone else, I might scoff at a band called the 3rd Eye Flute Band for the above reasons – especially if the album title is ‘Music from An Eastern Western’  and the band leader calls himself Lefty Wright. But with Paul, I’m all OK with that. Once you have heard this guy’s music, you will know why.

When I saw the album sleeve, which lists all the different ragas that the songs are based on, I was fully expecting this to be a very Indian affair, not least since Paul is a sitar player as already mentioned.

And when the needle hit the first groove, it did indeed sound very Indian. Not that my judgment means much in this case. My experience barely extends beyond Ravi Shankar’s guest appearances on Beatles albums. To put it bluntly, although I do know what a sitar sounds like, I wouldn’t be able to tell a raga from a muffin even if you were to hit me on the head with them.

But after the short intro track, the music quickly changes character. ‘The Left of Spring’ is a flute led number, allegedly based on a theme from Stravinsky’s ‘The Rites of Spring’, with a thumpy bass to the fore and Mellotron in the back. It has a bluesy feel and I couldn’t help but think of Jethro Tull, although this doesn’t sound anything like them. ‘Hoedown’ comes across almost like a jig, albeit with different instrumentation, and ‘Paxploitation’ takes us on a jazzy flute fantasy trip.

Side two starts with a key track, ‘Theme from an Eastern Wester’, the title them to an imaginary Bollywood Western. If anything, it reminds me vaguely of mid 70s prog rock although again it doesn’t sound at all like that. The soundtrack theme returns towards the end of the album with ‘Theme, variations 1 and 2’ in a similar but different vein: first it gallops away but then stops and breaks into a forlorn Mellotron voice reminiscent of Bo Hansson’s ‘Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings’. Except there’s lots of sitar so the comparison falters yet again.

While struggling to come to grips with the music here, I gradually realise that Paul’s strength is that although nothing he does is conventional, neither is it contrived. While the music on this album is definitely experimental, importantly, it doesn’t try to be different, or even difficult. When I asked Paul what kind of music it is, he answered: “I don’t really know what it is, it just appeared in my head like that.”

This music doesn’t try to fit into a certain genre, but at the same time it doesn’t consciously try to break genre rules either. It is innocent in a way, and as such it is a very liberating listen.

You really need to hear it.

The psychedelic mystery of Mandrake Paddle Steamer


Mandrake Paddle Steamer is a late 60s English psychedelic group that to this day remains shrouded in mystery.

The masterful obscurity rescue team also known as Guerssen records have just put out ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ on their Sommor sub-label that compiles hitherto properly unreleased material with the group. Now Guerssen always does things with style and class, and there is no difference here; these tracks come from the best sources that have surfaced so far and sound better than ever. And the music is hair-raisingly good, combining plaintive late-era psychedelia with wide-eyed proto-prog.

If you are at all interested in late 60s music, you must seek this one out. In fact, I suggest that you pause your reading right here and go out and buy it before you continue. Because once you have a copy, you will invariably start scratching your head and wonder at what you have in your hands, just like I will be doing for the rest of this review.



Welcome back! Although great, this release in a way deepens the confusion surrounding the band. Do you think that ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ rings a bell? It is also the title of Harry Nilsson’s debut album from 1967 which is of no relation. 

Instead, this CD/LP collects five UK recordings from 1968 focusing around the core creative team of Brian Engel and Martin Briley and then mixes in four recordings made after Engel had left: one from the tail end of 1968 and three 1970 recordings by which time the band had shortened its name to Mandrake. 

And then we get to the liner notes, which seem to be mainly written by original band member Paula (Paul in the mandrake days) Riordan. Although stating that some of these tracks have been previously compiled with inferior sound quality and wrong titles, they certainly do not help in clearing things up.

For starters, there is even confusion about what the group released. Their only single came out on Parlohone in the UK back in 1969, the A-side of which, ‘Strange Walking Man’ has left quite a mark, having been included on such esteemed compilations as ‘Acid Drops, Spacedust & Flying Saucers’, ‘Insane Times’ and ‘Psychedelia at Abby Road 1965-1969’ among others. And for good reason; it is a track that very much captures the post-psychedleic spirit of the time.

But then there is another single, released by Mandrake, also in 1969, but on the Swedish branch of Parlophone, as original soundtrack music from the Swedish film “Skottet”. Although it is quite good and has been included on Mandrake Paddle Steamer bootlegs I think we can safely remove it from the official list: the songwriters on that single are Claes Fellbom and Calvin Floyd, both of them known producers, writers and composers. Unhelpfully, there is no mention of it in the liners to the Guerssen release – but I have word from Guerssen that the band has no memory of the single.

Some light was shed on the band when RPM released ‘Between the Sea and the Sky’ containing an album ’s worth of tracks recorded by Martin Briley and Brian Engel in 1970/71 at George Martin’s Air Studios, but subsequently canned. The music had become even quirkier in a proto-10cc sort of way, and this is a must-have item for any serious lover of British pop music. But it also proved that many bootleg tracks that had been circulating were actually from these sessions and not properly by Mandrake Paddle Steamer.

Are you still with me? Good, because here is where it starts getting really confusing. The liner notes on that RPM release promised that “an official long awaited Mandrake Paddle Steamer collection will follow”. We were just asked to hold on. Roughly a decade later, we were still holding on, when an account on Bandcamp, published a six song collection called “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes”. Now the sound quality was pretty good on these tapes, the haunted pyschedelic pop with a hard prog edge was proof enough that they were the genuine thing, despite the page misspelling Brian Engel as “Brian Engle”.

But at some point in time, the six track compilation was reduced to just one track, the instrumental ‘Carmen’ that I would assume is from after Engel’s departure. Instead the rest now appear on the Guerssen compilation, which references the just mentioned Bandcamp making it legitimate in the process. But there are still some interesting differences. ‘Nice Man’ from the “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes” is gone, which is a pity because it has a great hard rock vibe and good vocals and it might just date from the Engel era. But it seems it was never finished back in the day and overdubs had been added more recently, hence its exclusion here.

The most worthwhile addition on the Guerssen release is unquestionably ‘The October Country’ which allegedly is the band’s first studio recording, that was only pressed on 10 acetates. It has all the atmosphere you could dream of, including the odd crackle.

There are also great sounding previously bootleg-only versions of ‘Solitarire Husk’ (‘The Ivory Castle of Solitane Itusk’ / ‘The Ivory Castle of Solitaire Husk’ on bootlegs) ‘The World Whistles By’ (‘In My Padded Cell’ / ‘East Wing’ on bootlegs) and ‘Upminster Windows’. These three tracks alone would make the Guerssen disc a solid purchase.

In addition, two 1968 tracks that have been redacted from “The Mandrake Paddle Steamer Tapes” now appear on the Guerssen release, namely the title track ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ (referred to on on bootlegs as ‘Cougar and Dark’) and the post-Engels track ‘Doorway To January’ (interestingly called ‘Slo Blo’ on ‘… Tapes’ just like on some bootlegs, whereas it has been called ‘Janus Suite’ on others).

From the 1970 Mandrake incarnation we also get ‘Stella Mermaid’ and ‘Doris The Piper’ that were also previously on ‘… Tapes’ but are not there anymore, as well as a hitherto totally unknown track, ‘Simple Song’ that despite its name is probably the most complex thing here. Martin Briley is still credited as playing guitar here but given that it is an instrumental track, I would guess it might be the last track with him on before he too left.

But that leaves out some interesting bootleg tracks unaccounted for, such as the yearning ‘Senlac Lament’ and the late night swing of ‘Nobody Flies So High’. So maybe there is more yet to be discovered?

Do you feel exhausted and confused on a higher level now? Well, I told you to go out and buy the thing before reading on, didn’t I!