One of the first live concerts I ever saw was the Ian Gillan Band, featuring the original voice of rock wailing away at the Odeon in Birmingham. With only a scratched vinyl copy of 24 Carat Purple to go by I wasn’t disappointed by the unexpected funky progressive sounds I heard on stage and Ray Fenwick’s soloing during ‘Child In Time’ remain a powerful memory all these years later.
Mr Fenwick had been in the music business some considerable time even then. An “archetypal journeyman” is how Cherry Red has categorised him. Not only a guitarist, but singer and multi-instrumentalist too. I’d largely perceived him as a session guitarist and this extensive 3 CD collection, featuring over 60 tracks certainly attests to that. However, he also became an integral part of The Spencer Davis Group, among other acts, and his ins-and-outs through the extended Deep Purple Family Tree is as intricately woven as a spider’s web.
The variety of music to be found is quite extraordinary. You expect to hear pop music changing with the times and as producers fancy their chances of scoring hits, but you’ll be surprised by the amount of ska tunes present, there’s less blues than guitarists of Fenwick’s generation are apt to fill their CV with, and between burgeoning rock and proto-progressive tunes it’s all worth a listen, and you may be surprised by those songs you do actually do end up favouring.
Covering 1964 through 2020, don’t expect a neat chronologically-led package whereby you can follow Fenwick’s career trajectory, as opportunities presented themselves and as his playing style developed. Sure, you get a number that follows that route, and generally the tracks flow evenly into each other, but it’s a right smorgasbord of sound. There are, however, two consistencies throughout: Fenwick’s guitar sound and the separation of sound present on so many of the tracks. This latter aspect is quite uncanny considering the various studios, large and small, that would have been used, and the different producers and engineers involved. More often than not each of the instruments have room to breathe, and the communication between them benefits.
His own guitar sound ranges from that of a taught brittle razor to fluid droplets of stringed emotion; surprisingly its rarely brought out for a full frontal attack but the tone is uniquely his, and what has been a well-thumbed booklet explains the reason for that; from an early age he was taught to string his guitar in the manner of his hero James Burton, whilst similarly shown the finger picking style of Chet Atkins, apply these to more modern rock and pop sounds and it becomes a highly distinctive sound. In fact, we get to hear him play alongside his hero, Burton, as well as legendary British drummer Clem Cattini three-quarters of the way through the final CD on a rockabilly version of ‘Milk Cow Blues’. Cattini and Fenwick also feature on the rowdy and bluesy rocker ‘Swingin Low’ that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Top 30 singles charts of yesteryear.
It begins where this listener expects though, with the Ian Gillan Band and ‘Mercury High’ from their final studio album together, Scarabus. Fenwick strikes out with a wonderful nagging guitar riff on a feelgood rocking number wherein the only tip of the hat to jazz fusion is applied in the middle eight, with Gillan effortlessly unleashing some throaty screaming with great aplomb throughout. A good way to start. We get two more from the line-up across the remaining CD’s, another number where he’s recycled the riff for use with the band, while the cover of ‘Smoke On The Water’ is not a live rendition from Gillan but from early studio supergroup Forcefield; the rendition sturdy, albeit the group harmony chorus vocals edge towards variety act territory.
A smile crept on my face with the many ska tunes that turned up fresh as a daisy through the collection. Quite a number of tracks also having some of a cowboy jingle going on in them, westerns being a perennial favourite for the British movie goer for many a year. This starts with ‘Range Rider’ credited to The South Coast Ska Stars. There’s some really nice guitar work that shifts from rough edged to a soft beat gallop. While with that same band’s reinterpretation of classical piece ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ it’s easy to imagine a creepy animation video accompanying it.
In the same musical vein ‘Everytime I Do’ by Rupert And The Red Devils is a cheesy singalong, while ‘Are You Wiv’ credited to Tich Turner’s Escalator is pure Madness come Bad Manners styled bovver boy with braces and a smile; its working class shouty vocals and semi-comedy lyrics have me questioning why it wasn’t a chart hit. Mixing several of those elements (ska, western motifs and comedy) and resulting in an alternative Benny Hill theme tune with added gospel and inventive use of guitar is ‘The Screw’ by The Spencer Davis Group. To those of us previously only familiar with the Steve Winwood fronted hit singles by the group, their work thereafter reflects the changing times as various British bands tried to maintain credibility, push beyond their audiences’ expectations and no doubt take whatever chances they could to stay in a business not expected to last more than a couple of years.
Fenwick joined during phase three of the band, original drummer Peter York jumping ship with replacement keyboard player Ed Hardin a while later. Not that this appears to have caused the guitarist to pause, seemingly taking more control of the group, with their last album being all but a solo one for him, and continuing to work with York & Hardin on various projects moving forward. ‘After Tea’ sees The Spencer Davis Group in sugar-cubed psychedelia mode. It’s weird, quaint and of its time, but you still might find yourself singing along. ‘Mr. Second Class’ is a similar trip into the “fantastique”, washed down with a pint of mild, while ‘Letters From Edith’ has them exploring early progressive rock leanings. Generalising here, it’s the kind of music Traffic, Manfred Mann and to a lesser degree The Kinks were trying out around the same period too. Expanding that sound ‘Stateside’, from Fenwick’s solo album, Keep America Beautiful, Get A Haircut, released in 1971 we get ‘The Dream’. This semi-rock suite is where the Midlands’ Moody Blues meet LA’s Love with the early Bee Gees looking on, wandering in pop-fuelled psychedelia flow with a really dirty guitar riff surfacing unexpectedly but vanishing just as soon.
Similar experimental suites can be found on ‘Stateside’ where funky R&B gives way to a more blaxploitation-car-chase film theme that’s infiltrated by old time musical hall orchestration then faux Christian evangelism preaching alongside a harmonica wailing away, with more strident proggy-guitar lines towards the end. Not the kind of thing you put on at a party, I expect. Though cooler dinner parties could take ‘Ghost Town’ as acoustic guitar gives way to piano, and snap, crackle and pop stylisations tale in folk, Americana and rock alongside harmony vocals reminiscent of Crosby, Stills & Nash, it’s all well-arranged and with some keen soloing that always keeps its ear and mind on the melody.
However, if you’re looking for guitar heroics you’ve got to dig deep. ‘Blues Never Gonna’ is 60’s styled beat rock with nifty enough guitar licks but listen carefully to the solo for, while it comes across playfully to the casual listener, its actual complexity of note configurations baffle and amaze. There are also a number of tunes that come cross with that Foghat/Quo/Climax Blues Band polite boogie approach, such as rock band Rowdy’s ‘High Class Baby’, alongside ‘I Wanna Boogie’ and ‘Mail Box’ both of which draw your attention towards the speakers when Fenwick’s solos kick in.
The instrumentals are where his playing comes to the forefront. ‘Cartwheel Rag’ is precise and colourful, while ‘Apache’ and ‘Walk Don’t Run’ are must-listens, standing out among the collection’s highlights. Let me explain; The Shadows are verboten in this house, she-who-must-be-obeyed can’t abide old Hank and his tremolo arm. And do we really need a cover of this their most famous number? Yes, if it is this one. Seriously. The tempo is slower, the ride warm and a little more melancholy or self-absorbed in deep thought. These are minor changes but the affectations, turns of phrase relayed a little differently really hit the mark. I love this. Its classy. The chord work is sexy, the lead lines caress gently but firmly. And I might even dare to play it to my better half one day.
The Ventures version of ‘Walk Don’t Run’ is the version most of us are familiar with, that they styled their version on Chet Atkins’ might be the reason Fenwick decided to do his rendition. Like ‘Apache’ the approach is different, faster here and a tad more, if not arrogant, then cocky in the lead guitar style. It all comes with rockier chops, in- fills, harmony guitars and is full of pizzazz throughout. He also leads the way through the ‘Main Theme’ for Hardin’s ‘Wind In The Willows’, an anthemic semi-prog come instrumental played live. His work with the keyboard player is also heard on ‘Maybe Baby’, a cradle rocking slow blues tune that’s also part Stylistics mood wise and subtle guitar playing throughout. We also get proto-heavy rock on Hardin & York’s ‘Have Mercy Woman’, rock boogie in the Wizard’s Convention band spin-offs ‘Money To Burn’, and more blues with ‘Hot Head Of Steam’ where Chris Farlowe’s booming voice is nicely volleyed back by Fenwick’s articulately picked solo, then Farlowe sings even better on ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ articulating and phrasing with deliberate and masterful feeling, the guitarist dedicating himself to a Les Paul styled jazzy supporting role here.
There are also a couple of tracks taken from Roger Glover’s Butterfly Ball, where these kind-of-collaborations really began, not least what remains for me Ronnie James Dio’s finest hour ‘Love Is All’. Oddly, the most commercial collaboration comes under The Murgatroyd Band moniker where Hardin’s heavy organ groove and Fenwick’s infectious guitar run delivers the theme from kids’ TV show Magpie – If you’re too young to have heard it first time round don’t worry; you’ll be singing along well before it finishes.
Mr Fenwick sings a fair few of the numbers himself. He carries a tune, sometimes rather well, but when you have the likes of the aforementioned Farlowe and Gillan, plus David Coverdale (making out like Teddy Pendergrass-come-Barry White over a beefy bass funk line, swirling electric guitar with a little jazz fusion on the side for the late 70s disco number ‘Can’t Let Go’ that’s seriously wrong but oh so right) Graham Bonnet (on both the Steely Dan like ‘Please Call Me’ and hard rocking ‘Hit And Run’) and Tony Martin (on a cover of The Kink’s ‘Tired Of Waiting For You’ given a slight post-new wave upbeat sound) we’re talking a different league. If you’re looking for good singers, CD 2 has the tastiest choices.
Elsewhere there are more blues shuffles including one featuring Bo Diddley, 60’s beat and psychedelia from sessions here and in Europe, soft country rock on the Mike Hurst sung ‘Show Me The Way To Georgia’, a cover of the classic ‘One Fine Day that’s so sugar-coated it could be Bucks Fizz with The Rubettes adding the high notes. If that puts you off there’s always ‘Classical Gas’ with Cozy Powell pounding away on his skins as an invigorated Fenwick hones in on fuzzed-up runs. Female-fronted rock band Fancy should’ve been bigger. ‘She’s Ridin’ The Rock Machine’ is a tad predictable in its relating the pitfalls of a rock ‘n roll lifestyle but vocally hits the mark, and during its funky pop rock sounds, Fenwick hints with a few licks and phrases the kind of thing he’d be bringing to the table for The Ian Gillan Band. Even more so on the rockabilly sounds of ‘Back USA’ credited to The Wheelin’ And Hammering’ Band he will later tweak the riff and speed it up with heavy duty overdrive for IGB’s ‘Mercury High’. Elsewhere, as on David Harks’ ‘Twice’ and Amorphous Androgynous’ ‘We Persuade Ourselves We Are Immortal’ he demonstrates a willingness to experiment alongside electronica.
Possibly the most curious among this collection is a number credited to a band called Minute By Minute. The musical performance is magnificently performed; heavy on the drums as a laid back late-night soul number ensues, from chilled piano to taught horns, fine harmonies and lead vocals as Fenwick’s guitar lines weave gently throughout, later gently rocking into an ace solo, followed again by piano. The subject matter throughout tends to make one cringe, and if I tell you its title is ‘Three Times Your Age’ perhaps that’ll explain why. True, it’s warning a young girl to stay away from a married guy, but how old must he be? Its well-meaning but not a subject matter easy to digest, and yet the music is heart-breaking in its restraint.
Ray Fenwick’s Playing Through The Changes is genuinely not what I expected. The length and breadth of diversity of music gives pause for reflection on how blinkered we’ve become in our tastes. Many are the tracks I can take or leave, just as many I know I’ll be picking out as choice favourites. Yes, I’d have liked him to stretch out and solo more but when you get to hear a version of ‘Apache’ that adds something to the old chestnut you can’t be displeased, indeed I’m far from it.
- Review by Paul H Birch.
- Playing Through The Changes: Anthology (1965-2020) is released via Cherry Red Records and is available now.
- Official Website
- Mercury High – Ian Gillan Band
- Tijuana Holiday – Minute By Minute
- Range Rider – The South Coast Ska Stars
- The Dream – Ray Fenwick
- She’s Ridin’ The Rock Machine – Fancy
- Swingin’ Low – Ray Fenwick & Clem Cattini
- The Screw – The Spencer Davis Group
- Blues Never Gonna – Ray Fenwick
- Everytime I Do – Rupert And The Red Devils
- Crawdaddy Simone – The Syndicats
- Long Ago (Live) – After Tea
- After Tea – The Spencer Davis Group
- Are You Wiv – Tich Turner’s Escalator
- Bad Boy – The Musicians Union Band
- Ghost Town – The Guitar Orchestra
- Apache – Ray Fenwick *
- Mr. Second Class – The Spencer Davis Group
- Cartwheel Rag – Ray Fenwick *
- Three Times Your Age – Minute By Minute
- Wind In The Willows – Main Theme – Eddie Hardin
- Smoke on the water (Single Version) – Forcefield
- Magpie – The Murgatroyd Band
- Trying To Get To You (Alternative Version) – Ian Gillan
- I Can’t Let Go – Angel Montgomery (Vocals: David Coverdale)
- Money To Burn – Wizard’s Convention
- I Wanna Boogie – Ray Fenwick
- Walk Don’t Run – Ray Fenwick
- High Class Baby – Rowdy
- Don’t You Leave (Re-recording) – Tee-Set
- Between The Devil And Me – Ray Fenwick
- Fly Away – Roger Glover And Guests
- Love Is All – Roger Glover And Guests
- The Blues Walk With Me – Geno Washington & The Purple Aces
- One Fine Day – Summer Wine
- Queen Of The Night – Ray Fenwick
- Tired Of Waiting For You – Forcefield II
- Hot Head Of Steam – Eddie Hardin’s Wizards Convention 2
- Have Mercy Woman – Hardin & York
- Please Call Me – Graham Bonnet
- Stewing My Wine – Guitar Orchestra
- Broken man – Marlon
- When The Sun Stops Shining – Wizard’s Convention
- Country Lights – Ian Gillan Band
- Hit And Run – Forcefield III
- Sultana (Instrumental) – Eddie Hardin’s Wizards Convention 2
- Try A Little Tenderness – Eddie Hardin’s Wizards Convention 2
- Twice – David Harks
- Show Me The Way To Georgia – Mike Hurst
- Stateside – Ray Fenwick
- In The Hall Of The Mountain King – The South Coast Ska Stars
- Letters From Edith – The Spencer Davis Group
- Bad Love – Geno Washington & The Purple Aces
- Classical Gas – Cozy Powell
- Maybe Baby – Eddie Hardin
- Tam Tam – Ray Fenwick
- Don’t Want No Lyin’ Woman – Bo Diddley
- Milk Cow Blues – James Burton Clem Cattini Dave Sampson Ray Fenwick
- Back USA – The Wheelin’ And Hammering’ Band
- Shine It On Me – Ray Fenwick’s White Lightning
- Mail Box – Ray Fenwick’s White Lightning
- We Persuade Ourselves We Are Immortal (Ray Fenwick Edit) – Amorphous Androgynous