Brothers Paul and Adrian Gurvitz scored an international hit single with still evergreen rocker ‘Race With The Devil’ in 1968, while playing guitar and bass respectively in Gun. Subsequently, as Three Man Army they faired less better, albeit recording three albums. Inviting former Cream and Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker to join them, his own Airforce band having just puttered out, they rebranded as the Baker Gurvitz Army, expanding beyond the power trio line-up once their 1974 self-titled debut album had been recorded, they brought on board vocalist Mr. Snips (Steve Parsons) and keyboard player Peter Lemer for live performances and subsequent release Elysian Encounter.
This remastered and expanded record features live recordings from that first tour, in 1975, and though these days we might consider them something of an unknown quantity – at best a twig on Baker’s rock family tree? – the warm reception that opens their performance at Reading University proves they had an enthusiastic audience.
They open with ‘Wotever It Is’ a groovy kid of number. In some regards it’s not dissimilar to the kind of R ’n B meets classic rock extemporising Rare Earth were having hits with over in the USA around the same time. Nearer home, think Osibisa, due to Baker’s afro-rock styling, but there are also pop sensibilities in the vocal hooks and you could just as easily picture some 70s dance group doing their thing to this on a variety show on TV. It doesn’t really go anywhere but as a warm-up and to get you in the mood, it offers a nice buzz.
A co-write by the original trio, ‘The Gambler’ is by Adrian Gurvitz, who’d later have a big solo hit with the ballad ‘Classic’, and write songs for acts as diverse as Hot Chocolate and the England World Cup Squad, before getting into film soundtrack compositions, such as for The Bodyguard, that won a Grammy Award. Most of the songs on this band’s debut had been intended for a fourth Three Man Army album, though the sleeve notes point out two numbers were Baker’s influences shine through. As one looks across the credits to this collection Baker and the guitarist wrote the bulk of the songs.
As it is, ‘The Gambler’ takes us down another unexpected route, in the manner of a country ballad that gets a little harder further down the line, but as with the previous number it’s the Gurvitz brothers’ backing harmonies over which Snips (who’d previously fronted Sharks) sings the lead that the overriding melody is affected. Lemer (who’s been in various prog and jazz outfits) delivers some attractive piano touches, and later what might be a mellotron offering a brief orchestral string sound. Gurvitz’s guitar also latterly begins to stir, immediately recognisable as the tone that produced ‘Race With The Devil’ and as the record progresses – like so many guitarists back then – possessing an individual character to his sound. Gurvitz and Lenner are musically at the forefront, on a cover of Hendrix’s ‘Freedom’. A little slower with a different rhythm, frankly you could easily see a band like The Temptations making this arrangement a hit single back then. However, they shift it up a gear or two too, with some soloing and jamming workouts reminiscent of both Issac Hayes and Blood, Sweat & Tears at times.
‘Phil’ is a slow blues guitar led number that becomes progressively jazzier as Lemer’s electric piano comes in during its long introduction, then when Snips starts singing a more US styled rocker, before further jazzy prog excursions where Baker and Paul Gurvitz address the engine room of the band with upbeat snazzy rhythms. The song itself being dedicated to Baker’s mentor jazz drummer Phil Seaman, who it sounds like does a lot of the song introductions, being no wallflower.
‘Remember’ is another number where it starts off whimsically slow but intermittently hits the power switch, also meanderingly into jazzy prog territory with Lener’s synthesiser pointing the way for Don Airey in Colosseum II’s Strange New Flesh that was but a year away. In the latter section, lest we forget who he is, Baker starts doing these tour-de-force rolls around his kit the band following suit with power-driven rock fusion. As if on the same we have ‘Memory Lane’ next that’s more muscular fusion with Lener’s organ and Snips vocals adding upbeat R ‘n B to the mix, only for it go a little psychedelic then have them throw us yet a further curve with an extended drum solo before eventually going into a vocal chant of “Why don’t you come with me” alongside audience clapping before climaxing.
Baker’s shaking out an afro-beat amid some more hefty drum rolls as ‘People’ opens, the group harmonies are also back while Snip’s lead voice is powerful out front, it being an upbeat number, incorporating jazz rock with some particularly fine scowling guitar licks, sci-fi sounding prog rock effects and some funk in there too. An invigorating number to end the set on. From here on, the tracks were recorded the same year at the New Victoria Theatre and are presumably the added tracks for this expanded collection. There’s another drum solo from Mr Baker, and even if you don’t care for them, you have to concede he bloody knows what he’s doing and why, it’s not just all for effect and look how fast I can go That it ends with the riff to ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ leads me to suspect this section isn’t the original running order. The next track’s is actually the title track from the as yet unreleased 1976 Hearts On Fire album, and written by Baker and proves to be the most blues rocking in their set, so the closest to Cream live and the million other bands that followed in their wake.
‘Help Me’ is another Baker number, despite which this time you’re reminded of the early Yes, lots of bravado adventuring musicality, vocal harmonies and a song that appears to reverberate with the social concerns of the time. That the collection ends with a cover of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ that Baker wasn’t actually involved in the writing of, kind of ironic, but at the heart of it – beyond the all-consuming riff and hook line chorus that every cover band learns to mimic – the drum pattern is a sideways shuffling afro-beat contrasting with the main melody direction but leading its changes. Here, as with previous introductions, the original madman of rock sounds incredibly laid back and in good spirits, introduces the band and dedicates the song to Jimi Hendrix, and it’s a blustery loud version we get to hear.
Peter Lemer would eventually leave the band, keyboards being played by others on their final studio release, and the sleeve notes tell us Baker and Adrian Gurvitz weren’t getting on – Hardly a surprise despite the amiable nature of Baker’s live commentary then. Ultimately, the financial fallout from manager Bill Fehilly dying in a plane crash but paid to them going further – The former Scottish bingo hall owner having also managed Nazareth and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
Listening to this live recording it’s undoubtedly where they’re in their element. Had they continued they would need to have evolved into a snappier techno jazz rock outfit like Colosseum II or Brand X to maintain a cult following, and that was unlikely. Had they got together a few years earlier, and made inroads over in the USA they may well have scored some hit singles, utilising their R ‘n B dance strengths, giving both Rare Earth and Santana a run for their money. As it is, we have the records, and this one’s actually pretty good.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch.
- Live 1975 is released via Cherry Red Records on 24th November 2023.
- Wotever It Is
- The Gambler
- Memory Lane
- Drum Solo
- Hearts On Fire
- Help Me
- Sunshine of Your Love