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Pompeii – The Secret Sessions

Featuring members of Mountain, Cream, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, the Allman Brothers and more…

 Pompeii – The Secret Sessions

Out on 21 April 2018 through Rouge Records

Reviewed by Paul H Birch

Most people’s lofts are filled with the debris of their lives, Christmas decorations are brought down annually, rummages intermittently made for items we never find and eventually our offspring left to dispose of such items when our ticket arrives for that great rock ’n’ roll festival in the sky. My own daughter’s going to find a scrapbook filled with Mott the Hoople memorabilia culled from copies of Smash Hits, Music Scene and the weekly music papers of the yesterday. She may take it with a pinch of salt that her dad kept pictures of blokes dressed in drag playing guitars, if indeed she bothers to pour over his keepsakes before putting them on a bonfire. Should she come across that picture of Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson sitting on chairs alongside half of Mountain will she smile to herself, happy that the decrepit old sod eventually found out what happened to that record they were supposed to be making together? Well, only if she also reads this, I guess.

In the late 70s rock’s reigning crusaders were doing too many drugs, acting like prima donnas while repeating themselves or time had caught up and they were no longer the hip young dudes that had stormed the charts a couple of years back. Punk was knocking at the door, and record companies smiled fiendishly still hoping to make a fast buck. Fortunately, not everyone was given the cold shoulder straight away, just in case. Case in point one Corky Laing.

Canadian born Laing had been drummer with America’s answer to Cream in the shape of Mountain, a section from their epic ‘Nantucket Sleighride’ used as the theme music for ITV’s Weekend World TV show back in the day (only the version featured was a cover by Birmingham’s Quartz!). While Laing’s name may not be familiar to most folk, he co-wrote many of Mountain’s most popular tunes, including their hit single ‘Mississippi Queen’ while his drum break on ‘Long Red’ vies with John Bonham’s on Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ as one of the most sampled by hip hop acts. So, those in the business knew Laing had commercial nouse and he secured record deals under his own name or variations there of too, singing on the records also. Thus it was Elektra/Asylum president Steve Wax offered Laing the opportunity to record one more record before the musical changing of the guard, and brought in former Mott The Hoople front-man Ian Hunter to co-write with Laing. With Bob Ezrin pegged as producer a veritable super-group was being put together to play on the album, but that went pear-shaped. Not that it mattered, when you have friends in high places, so they replaced them with others, notably with Hunter calling Mick Ronson in to play on the sessions.

Apparently a band was being put together, going under the name of Pompeii. Was that irony? Empires crumbled the record never came out, not until it trickled out in 1997 titled The Secret Sessions. Blink and you missed it. Now, as part of Record Store Day 2018 on April 21st it’s getting a bigger push through Rogue Records with some added extras thrown in too.

Mountain and Mott The Hoople aren’t the most obvious bed partners, and you might ask who signed off on having both Eric Clapton and Todd Rundgren on the same album. Did the master tapes deserve burning? No, it’s a record very much of its time but not of American blues-based hard rock variety one might expect. The writing partnership of Laing and Hunter appeared to be heading for a more mainstream chart approach and it’s possible if they’d had a photogenic guy fronting the vocals and anonymous session musicians instead they might have had a few 7-inches crack the US charts.

As it stands, the vocals get shared between Hunter and Laing, sometimes together. Laing’s voice has a dry rawness to it, while it makes one smile to hear a younger more wide-eyed Hunter belting out in a higher pitch. Opening co-write ‘Easy Money’ falls into one of rock’s great clichés by trying to tell poignant songs about prostitutes, despite which it’s a catchy pop rock tune with Hunter playing an incessant piano refrain throughout only for Ronson to strike when least expected with a wonderfully scouring solo.

With Laing on drums, Pappalardi playing bass on most of the tracks and Lesley West showing up too, the record is one for Mountain completists. They are all present and correct on ‘The Best Thing’ that’s not unlike an offbeat version of The Kinks’ ‘Come Dancing’ with Laing taking lead vocals and Todd Rundgren audibly chiming in on the chorus. With a barroom piano opening taking us into a slow shuffle the rhythm section of Pappalardi and Laing give ‘I Ain’t No Angel‘ an emphatic groove as Hunter comes on like an Anglo-Randy Newman on what could have been the theme tune to an American version of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Vocals are again handed over to Laing for ’I Hate Dancin’’ a song about someone else getting up on the dance floor with the woman you have a crush on. The rhythmic merging of hard rock with the then emerging disco movement proves worth listening to, and an opportunity to expand on such – albeit in a limited manner – was possibly missed.

‘The Outsider’ proves to be one of the more rewarding tracks that could well have ended up on a Hunter solo album. A dirty gnarled guitar opening shifts to an acoustic strum in the manner Ronson would apply to classic Bowie tunes, only for Rundgren to add organ and the song turn into a gospel flavoured narrative about a weary gunfighter so tags the hero from Bad Company’s theme tune to the Mountain-covered Jack Bruce number ‘Theme From An Imaginary Western’ as an opus. While Laing’s vocal contributions are a little strained it doesn’t mire things, and when West joins Ronson to solo away on guitar towards the end it’s less a six string gunfight and more Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid riding off blissfully into the sunset.

The Loving Spoonful’s John Sebastian is another surprise addition to this record, blowing harmonica on ‘Silent Movie’ while Pappalardi pumps in meaty bass lines on a fun mid-paced rock ‘n’ roller where Hunter and Laing share vocals. The core group also perform on two cover versions, the first would not come out by its composer Randy Van Warmer until the year after The Secret Sessions were recorded, and it proved to be a hit single for him. Whereas the version of ‘Just When I Needed You Most’ here while less middle of the road and more country stroll isn’t aided by some rather leaden guitar playing from Ronson. Fortunately, Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Lowdown Freedom’ is fine melodic pop rock of the sort that opens the record building up to some great inter-whining guitar lines by Ronson and West again.

Before those last two are another pair recorded a couple of years previously by Laing and while decent tunes on their own they don’t quite fit the same picture as the rest of The Secret Sessions. Had recording time been pulled by Elektra and Laing optimistically looked to fill five tracks a side of vinyl believing the record’s release would still go ahead?

‘On My Way To Georgia’ was a Laing co-write with West and Mick Jones (who was playing in West’s band after Spooky Tooth went belly-up and before Foreigner was a twinkle in his eye). It’s a Southern rock tune, featuring Eric Clapton on guitar alongside The Allman Brothers’ Dickie Betts on slide, but the use of electronic bongos by Laing again adds a different percussive texture to proceedings. It was recorded at the celebrated Capricorn Studios in Macon, Georgia with the Muscle Shoals horn section in evidence, as was ‘Growin’ Old With Rock N’ Roll’ but never could two tracks sound more different. The latter is sleek with a West Coast feel, something you might have thought Andrew Gold wrote rather than Laing.

As part of this special release there are four bonus tracks also available as digital downloads. They are 2017 re-recordings and one might question their worth; (a) On a record that never saw light first time round in the 70s, and (b) Rarely do fans get excited about acts redoing their old works, (c) How can you replace star performers with guys no body’s heard of?

The thing is though, Pompeii, the band that never was, seems to have revolved around the Mountain/Mott axis and you feel those recording weren’t quite the finished article. Whereas, modern production techniques do allow swifter more polished recordings, so in this case the differing versions are worth comparing and enjoying on their own merits. The newer version of ‘Easy Money’ has Laing’s drums up in the mix and he appears to be doubling up on the beat, but it’s the guitars that are noticeably different, stop-start power chords and the main notes of Ronson’s solo are kept but played cleanly. With roaring vocals solely by Laing now he comes across a little like Billy Joel at one point, while the music is sailing more towards Michael McDonald.

With ‘Silent Movie’ it’s again the same notes being played but a totally different style, in this case with the bass guitar, there’s also a harmonica present and a touch of Cajun musical seasoning. Older tune ‘Growing Old with Rock & Roll’ I’m unsure about, Laing sings well but doesn’t play drums on this faster tempo version. Then there’s a new number, ‘Knock Me Over’. This is the kind of song Mountain fans are probably expecting, an elongated riff leaping out from an acid rock blues tune with some roaring vocals heard.

The Secret Sessions is a record in three parts, and it’s fair to say even its main section was never going to set the world alight. But had it been released a year or two before, you could well imagine it sitting on the record shelves of many a home, tucked alongside half-forgotten Ken Hensley, Jon Lord or Yes’ members solo albums bought as curiosities. However, there are some good tunes on The Secret Sessions, ones worth hearing again. And, in hindsight, had the record been released back then somebody might have suggested Laing and Hunter continue their song-writing partnership because they had the potential to write hits for others.

Track List:

  1. Easy Money
  2. The Best Thing
  3. I Ain’t No Angel
  4. I Hate Dancin’
  5. The Outsider
  6. Silent Movie
  7. Growin’ Old With Rock N’ Roll
  8. On My Way To Georgia
  9. Just When I Needed You Most
  10. Lowdown Freedom

Bonus tracks available on digital download:

  1. Easy Money (2017 Re-Record)
  2. Silent Movie (2017 Re-Record)
  3. Growing Old with Rock & Roll (2017 Re-Record)
  4. Knock Me Over (New Song by Corky Laing)

 

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