The psychedelic mystery of Mandrake Paddle Steamer

SOMM045 MANDRAKE LP 4

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!

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