Ahhhh, now here’s a fun one. Those of us with a love of 1970s bands that never managed to achieve mass success (but were every bit as good as the ones that did) have had a lot to thank Esoteric Recordings for over the last fifteen years.
Their reissue campaign has shown a remarkable dedication to getting sometimes forgotten music back into the spotlight (and the marketplace) once again. Recent years have seen expansive collections from the likes of Peter Bardens, Curved Air, Affinity, Rare Bird, Juicy Lucy, Renaissance, Jade Warrior, Anthony Phillips… the list goes on and on. The latest, out on 24 June, is Babe Ruth: Darker Than Blue – The Harvest Years 1972-1975. This beautiful 3 CD clamshell boxed set showcases the trio of records Babe Ruth made for the Harvest label back in the day. (Note: I have endeavoured to keep this review free of any obvious puns like ‘home run’ or ‘hit it out of the park’… but let it be known that I did want to use them.)
Though not exactly dwelling in obscurity, Babe Ruth do number among the bands who seem to retain a more underground or cult status (or at least from today’s perspective they do), and this likely adds to their appeal. The inventive band often built their compositions on a bluesy hard rock foundation but also dabbled in more adventurous areas, flavouring their music with jazz, soul, and funk, and dotting it with brass, strings, and woodwinds. Darker Than Blue follows their career during its most progressive and engaging era, covering the albums First Base, Amar Caballero, and Babe Ruth, as well as period singles including non-album tracks (some of which have never appeared on CD before). It all sounds fresh and clear; the music has been newly remastered from the original master tapes, and the illustrated booklet contains a new essay by Steve Pilkington and thoughts from Babe Ruth founder and main songwriter Alan Shacklock.
The band’s ambitious 1972 debut was adorned with one of Roger Dean’s more unusual covers and earned them a healthy following, even going gold in Canada. And it’s easy to see why many think of it as one of those ‘instant classic’ debuts. The young quintet bust out of the gate drenched in attitude in the driving opening track Wells Fargo (surely one of the all-time great rock album openers) with Janita ‘Jenny’ Haan’s striking Joplin-esque bluster going toe to toe with biting guitar riffs and squealing sax. How does one even describe Haan accurately? Her charisma is undeniable; she has to be heard to be believed, and it’s no wonder she is often cited as the band’s secret weapon, giving them a uniqueness that set them apart from their contemporaries.
First Base goes from strength to strength over its six cuts, exploring differing moods and employing a variety of instruments not common to the rock world. The vibe of Wells Fargo is countered by the second track The Runaways, with Haan crooning over gentle oboe and cellos before fluttering piano notes signal a crescendo into a rich instrumental second half. A brilliant and ballsy one-take cover of Frank Zappa’s King Kong finds bassist Dave Hewitt and drummer Dick Powell laying down a killer groove for Dave Punshon and Alan Shacklock to trade impressive solos over (on electric piano and guitar, respectively). The melodic blues-rock cover of Jesse Winchester’s Black Dog begins softly and expands to a full blown intensity lifted by Haan’s passionate vocals and Shacklock’s wailing licks.
Despite stiff competition, the album’s centrepiece is undoubtedly The Mexican. If there’s only one Babe Ruth track known to the wider world, it tends to be this one. Punshon and Shacklock’s exemplary unison leads drive the piece alongside Haan’s assertive vocal before introducing a section of Ennio Morricone’s Per Qualche Dollaro in Piú (from the score of the famous western film For A Few Dollars More). There’s a timelessness to this track as evidenced by the way it transcends the decades, being covered by American artist Jellybean (with Haan reappearing) in the 1980s, German power metal band Helloween in the 1990s and even used by Wu-Tang rapper GZA in 2015. Anyone who has seen live clips of the band performing The Mexican (or those lucky dogs actually in the audience) can attest to how impressive it was. Maintaining its high quality right to the end, the album’s closing track Joker is a simpler riff-based heavy rocker with Shacklock and Haan trading spirited lead vocals.
If First Base is the obvious fan favourite album, Amar Caballero is arguably the band’s most underrated. The sophomore effort saw a distinct branching out in styles, which admittedly some listeners found more disjointed than simply varied. A few songs originally written for (but unused by) other artists ended up being thrown in the pot and became Babe Ruth songs, so it’s little wonder there was so much variety. Yes, they get a bit weird here and there (as the switch from Dean’s sleeve design to that of Hipgnosis might indicate), but it’s worth noting this is ‘good’ weird. I like a bit of unpredictability in a record, and there’s very little that’s predictable here.
Opening track Lady touches on jazz and casual funk. Broken Cloud has a calm, dreamy quality with tinges of the far East and Haan’s poignant Native American-focused lyrics. Gimme Some Leg is divisive among fans, with its off-the-wall approach to lead and backing vocals. It can also come across as a bit of a one-trick pony without much to build on for its six minutes in length. However, the story behind the lyrics is revealed by Haan in the liner notes to this new boxed set, and it’s a something of a shocker which might well change a lot of opinions. Let’s just say there was bravery on Haan’s part to write this song, and I’ll certainly never look at it the same way again. A complete 180 degree turn from there is the elegant acoustic piece We Are Holding On, with its weeping violin melodies and gentle flute evoking a mournful beauty. It’s a lovely piece that should have gone on a little longer; the fade-out feels sudden.
To be fair, there are a couple of throwaways here. The cover of Cool Jerk by 60s R&B group The Capitols feels out of place, even on an album without a unifying style like this one. And Doctor Love is perhaps the weakest spot of this entire set; an unsuccessful attempt at up-tempo funk which even Haan’s energy can’t save. Mercifully these are the two shortest tracks and are forgotten by the time the album’s closing nine minute title suite gets underway. A beautifully crafted and primarily instrumental composition, it’s an adventurous piece which fires on all cylinders and features Spanish guitar themes, Latin rhythms, masses of congas and even mellotron! The track’s final section closes the album on a tranquil note with Shacklock’s lulling acoustic guitar.
The third CD showcases the eponymous and final album the band made for the Harvest label, one which harkens back to First Base more than it does Amar Caballero. Certainly the one-two punch of straightforward opening tracks Dancer and Somebody’s Nobody are built of rockier stuff than most of the preceding album, and the band also make a return trip to the Morricone soundtrack world with a rousing cover of the theme from A Fistful Of Dollars. Another noteworthy track here is the fearless re-working of Curtis Mayfield’s civil rights anthem We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue, with Haan in particular delivering a powerhouse performance.
Jack O’Lantern is a fun rocker with splendid guitar from Shacklock and tasty drum patterns by Ed Spevock (who had replaced Powell after the debut album) that give it a foot-tapping boogie tempo. The Flamenco flavours return in the sweet Turquoise, with more impressive Spanish guitar. Overall the album is more consistent than its predecessor but doesn’t reach the heights of its strongest moments, and it’s not without its own ‘skipper’ tracks in the form of a cover version of Private Number and Spevock’s lone composition Sad But Rich. But once again, the closing number The Duchess Of Orleans is more substantial and developed, and tends to be a crowd-pleaser with the dramatic organ and vocal intro, melodic guitar solos, and Haan’s impassioned delivery as the song builds in intensity.
Shacklock left Babe Ruth following this album and was replaced by ex-Wild Turkey and pre-Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden. The band moved to Capitol Records, made the album Stealin’ Home, and then lost two more members including Haan, departures which would soon prove fatal. One last album, Kid’s Stuff, was the final nail in the coffin of a band which no longer had any original members (we’ve seen similar situations in more recent years, but that’s a can of worms). It was simply not possible to recreate the magic of the first three albums with the main songwriter and the irreplaceable voice of the band both gone.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of reviewing such comprehensive sets is hearing material I’m unfamiliar with, as was the case here with most of the third album. It’s not one I’ve ever stumbled upon in the used bins, and as it’s mainly been an expensive Japanese import for many years now, I was always unlikely to find a new copy. Thankfully we now have all three albums dusted off and presented in this appealing set. Babe Ruth proved to be a truly fun band to both explore and rediscover, and this sparkling new set comes highly recommended.