Those of a certain vintage will recall when Thursday evening rituals meant watching Top of the Pops on the telly, as a family. Your eagle-eyed father might sarcastically note one bloke miming to a hit looked just like another a month back, and it may well have been, such was the life of a session singer fronting some made-up group back then. Many of us remained ashamedly ignorant until revealed years later that one couple even blacked-up to look like they were of West Indian descent. But, back to your family gatherings, hands up those who noticed the bloke sitting playing acoustic in Stealers Wheel was ten minutes later plastered in make-up wearing a girly Donny Osmond cap while nearly thrusting his guitar up Ian Hunter’s jacksy as Mott the Hoople assaulted our senses?
I don’t think this little boy did either, but he’d just seen his first mad axeman in Aerial Bender, and all guitar heroes forever more would need to stand or fall by comparison, if only by their extrovert nature. As with many of those bricklayers-in-drag from glam rock’s heyday, this guitar player had a seasoned musical history. Most notably as lead guitarist with the underground rock band Spooky Tooth. And, back then, the Evesham-born lad was known as Luther Grosvenor.
Spooky Tooth closed shop for the first time after The Last Puff, album, but Island Record label owner Chris Blackwell offered time at his home over in Spain for Grosvenor to begin writing a solo album. Basking in the sun aside, he happily wrote more songs on his return to the UK but also realised that outside the comfort zone of being in a band it was going to be his responsibility to hire and budget for additional musicians and to co-produce the album – For the latter, he got Tony Platt involved; a name known to many for his work with acts as diverse as The Boomtown Rats, Foreigner, AC/DC and Bob Marley, but back then only just starting out. Nonetheless, the results come across well all these years later, a diverse collection of material that easily slots into that broad Island Records house style, while keeping instrumentation to a minimum defines it with a more personalised feel.
Grosvenor played all guitars, and bass on all but two tracks where The Move’s Trevor Burton stepped in, while acting as lead vocalist for the first time. Fellow former Spooky Tooth drummer Mike Kellie is also ever-present save for ‘Here Comes The Queen’ (a number revisited live with Mott) where original King Crimson drummer and co-founder Mike Giles plays. Piano and organ feature on a few tracks courtesy of John Hawken, who’d had a brief stint in Spooky, more notably Renaissance, and latterly The Strawbs. Fairport Convention and Fotheringay’s Trevor Lucas sings harmonies on ‘Waiting’, while Grosvenor’s old mate, Traffic’s Jim Capaldi (who he’d played in Evesham beat band Deep Feeling with) and Mick Ralphs (who he’d end up replacing in Mott) both pitch in vocally on opening number ‘Ride On’.
Some of the above you’ll find in the booklet that comes with a new remastered and expanded edition of Luther Grosvenor’s 1971 debut solo album, Under Open Skies. The young guitarist’s scruffy-haired face peers out from the front cover, weighing us up through bleary eyes. It looks like he might be wearing a hoodie decades before they became the chav fashion of choice, only when you open the CD’s gatefold sleeve, you’re presented with a distanced photo of him under an oak tree and his garments’ now revealed as what appears to be druid’s white habit – Possibly it all has some ecological symbolism and ties in with the album’s title, though it’s as likely most presumed all Midlanders were devil-worshipping nutters like that Black Sabbath band. Well, the music’s decidedly different, let me tell you!
‘Ride On’ slopes in via Grosvenor’s casual almost reggae bass line, before Hawken and Kellie gently add a jazz mood akin to Traffic riffing on Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ but even as you get settled into that the piece moves into a rockier section. That it alternates between these sections for some six minutes, adding assorted subtle elements; the most obvious being Capaldi and Ralphs joining on vocals, less so an uncredited organ but also more profound piano, what becomes integral clapping, and latterly the first instance of Kellie’s especially cool percussive elements to the songs on the album. ‘Ride On’ itself fades as if to end and does so before returning more times than works, but, overall, the piece holds its own. Perhaps surprisingly we find Grosvenor’s not a bad singer, but as for where his guitar is on this track you really need to put your ear to a speaker, and then it’s more soundscapes than actual playing.
The songs are all self-penned by Grosvenor, save three co-writes co-credited to Githa Grosvenor (presumably his wife, then if not now), and they demonstrate a diversity of taste, albeit with a penchant for folk. ‘Here Comes the Queen’ is the first co-write, and Mott The Hoople fans will know this as being performed live and rocked-up by that band in 1974 (and wouldn’t have been out of place on their own 1971 album Wildlife); here it’s busking jug band folk, with some particularly effective acoustic slide work throughout.
If that last track wouldn’t have been out of place on a Lindisfarne long player, it’s not surprising as that band’s drummer, Paul Nicholls, would join Grosvenor in ill-fated supergroup Widowmaker in 1975 and they also later covered the song, as they did the following ‘When I Met You’, both as more beefed-up versions – This latter track is more typical of what to expect from the lead guitarist of Spooky Tooth and other future rock acts. A call and response rock and roller, great blasts of electric guitar throughout, with catchy impassioned vocals to the fore that sees him affecting both rock and country folk nuances at the higher end of his range.
‘Love The Way’ is another Githa co-write but features Luther performing all guitars and percussion himself. A pretty acoustic tune, not unlike ‘No Face, No Number’ as sung and co-written by his mate Capaldi in Traffic, making you wonder had its origins earlier in the 60s when they played together. Following quite naturally is ‘Waiting’ with added piano and percussion acting like a clock gently clicking in the background, then with a gorgeous swell of vocal harmonies it builds to a rather raucous Dylan roustabout, but often returning to its gentler themes – Turn the volume up for this, from dry finger flesh sliding across to guitar strings to the various extraordinary soft taps Kellie applies percussively it’s all so clever though only intended to add atmosphere, which it certainly does.
Plugging in the electrics once more we get ‘Rocket’ a kind of blues rocker featuring just Grosvenor and Kellie and they’re perfectly attuned to each other. The song itself mainly revolves around a simple lurching riff, a bit Spooky Tooth but also somewhat creepy as Atomic Rooster could be. There are a couple of brief bass solos, and sections where it all breaks up freeform with feedback, jazzy phrase and Hendrix like distortion, oddly somehow all working together. Title-track ‘Under Open Skies’ comes in at just under six minutes, but little epic closer that it is you may have thought longer. Acoustic guitars strum hard and fast, Kellie and Burton moving it along at the bottom end, Grosvenor singing about freedom and associated green issues but it’s the rising harmonies you’ll be interested in over the actual words and Grosvenor’s got his electric guitar set on a vintage Clapton sound but applying it under his own style, that is blues and hard rock with some country runs, soloing throughout the whole number, never getting in the way but again adding atmosphere – what this album is really all about.
The old vinyl edition finished there, but here on this Expanded Edition we get two bonus tracks: ‘Heavy Day’ is the B-side of a single and ‘All the People’ the A-side of a single, though not presumably either side of the same 7” – The former’s got a 1971 date, the other 1972. Were their other sides tracks from the album? Alas that information’s missing from the quite informative booklet. What I can tell you is they’re as hard to define musically as the album itself. There’s a brass section on both. On ‘Heavy Day’ the horns repeat their jazz rocking lines at various points in the song, and are always followed by a kind of rockabilly riff from Grosvenor, while the main verses tend to be atypical pop beat stuff. A weird mix, and the guitarist also throws in a couple of pretty wild solos, all on a B-side. ‘All the People’ is more a pop-psychedelia number that was probably old hat by 72, but interesting to listen to. Better men will put me straight, but it sounds like Kellie on drums on the first, if not both tracks.
Under Open Skies wasn’t a hit for Luther Grosvenor, but back then record companies gave acts a chance, to experiment and grow, see what stuck. It’s hard to see where Grosvenor was going with this, the acoustic tracks were one thing, the others hard to completely get an angle on, save actually enjoy, and I did. At times it feels like an early solo Jack Bruce album, bits of Traffic, possibly less so Spooky Tooth.
Overall, I get the impression there was innocent naivety and a little fear felt in his putting together this album back in 1971, but Grosvenor also dared to head on deep into the adventure and see where it could take him. Surrounded by a closeknit group of friends, that was a wise decision. Under Open Skies possibly helped him grow out of a shell to become the larger-than-life Aerial Bender a few years down the road – From comments he makes in the latter section of the booklet, he’s always been content to walk away from the stage and go about what we might term a normal life.
After Widowmaker’s second album, 1977’s Too Late To Cry, he did walk away right up until the late nineties were a lot happened all at once – First he and Kellie guested on a Peter Green tribute album, the pair sticking together for the guitarist’s second solo album, Floodgates, a rockier affair, then subsequently a Spooky Tooth reunion. This millennium he followed it with the If You Dare album and some live appearances, most notably in 2018 for a Mott The Hoople reunion.
- Reviewed by Paul H Birch
- Under Open Skies (Remastered & Expanded Edition) is available now via Cherry Red Records.
- Ride On
- Here Comes the Queen
- When I Met You
- Love The Way
- Under Open Skies
- 8 Heavy Day (B-side of single)
- 9 All the People (A-side of single)