Saturday, October 04, 2014

Chicken Shack serves blues and yocks with OK Ken?

Chicken Shack was the other purist blues band on the Blue Horizon label, after Fleetwood Mac, and always remained the second band where the Mac became superstars, first as a blues band, led by Peter Green, and then as AOR band, with one time Chicken Shack member Christine Perfect who married John McVie, bassist for Fleetwood Mac, and, as Christine McVie, became one of the creative forces in the Fleetwood Mac of the Lindsey Buckingham / Stevie Nicks period.

Fleetwood Mac had the advantage of three top guitarists, all of whom also wrote songs and sang. Chicken Shack is more or less your classic blues set up of virtuoso lead guitarist, who sings and writes some of the original songs, supported by a accomplished blues pianist who also sings and writes, albeit at a lower level than the band leader, and a rhythm section who aspire just to get the job done.  It is not a bad formula and in the right hands, such as with Chicken Shack, the results are pleasing indeed if you love blues.

Chicken Shack remained a more or less purist blues band, albeit with “progressive” detours into psychedelia and mainstream rock, with multiple line ups in which only Stan Webb, lead guitarist and vocalist, was the constant. As far as I know Webb is still leading some incarnation of Chicken Shack and is still gigging and recording to this day.

When I started collecting records, as a first year student with little money, I used to trawl through the discount bins at the various records shops I visited to search out cheap blues records. This was a habit I never quite got over even when I had money and could buy contemporary releases and full price blues records. By the early Nineties I started buying CDs and no longer bought vinyl until I started idly browsing the record bins at Vibes Records, then in the Old Mutual Arcade in the Cape Town CBD where I found a number of albums I’d have killed for back in my early record collecting days. A number of them were by the J Geils Band and one of them was OK Ken? the second Chicken Shack album.

The astonishing thing for me, given how many discounted records I used to buy, was that the quality of the vast majority of the records was quite good and it was a rare occurrence to buy a record that was defective in some way, warped or scratched. It was a slightly different proposition with the records sold by Vibes Records because these were second hand albums and were not necessarily as well looked after as the way I looked after my own records. J Geils Band’s The Morning After and OK Ken? are examples of two albums that were damaged to the extent that the records could not really be played.

In the case of OK Ken?, if memory serves, most of it was almost playable except for the second side and specifically the last couple of tracks. The vinyl was warped and scratched and jumped horribly when played. I do not remember what I paid for the record but it was more or less wasted money. It was no big deal though; at that time I hardly listened to records any more.

OK Ken? was amongst the bunch of records I gave away in 2009. It was only recently and coincidentally that I even recollected that I had once owned this album. So, in 2014 I not only bought the sonically pristine iTunes version of The Morning After but have now also bought the digital version of OK Ken?   I only have praise for iTunes.

It is possible that Stan Webb thought of himself as a comedian or that dope smoking was rife in the studio where the tracks for this album were recorded, or maybe the lads just liked playing silly buggers. A brief skit introduces each track where someone, and my guess is that it is mostly Mr Webb himself, pretends to be a radio announcer and/or “Stan Webb,” and entertains us with a snippet of wacky interview in funny voices. Why this is necessary is unclear unless it was intended to lighten the mood of a blues album, which is, after all, a record of songs about unhappiness.  The skits are almost funny the first time around, in a schoolboy fashion, but soon pall with familiarity and it would be nice to be able to disable the skits.

The other fascinating, and I mean this, insight into the world of the blues, is that Christine Perfect writes and sings three songs in a very mild mannered, very English voice that is totally unsuited to the blues. She can sure pound her piano but that rather colourless voice is so genteel that it makes one think of the Twitter joke #VeryBritishProblems. Christine McVie was far better as an AOR songwriter and singer with Fleetwood Mac in the late Seventies than she is here.

It seems that most of the tunes are written by the band, with Freddy King’s instrumental  “Remington Ride” and BB King’s “Sweet Sixteen.” The band sounds as purist a blues band as the early Fleetwood Mac and the production values on the album are high, as one would expect from Ike Vernon, yet there is a certain clinical distance here as if the musicians, who are very capable, were more careful to get it right than to allow too much passion  and joy into their performances.

Although Stan Webb does not have the expressiveness as blues singer that, for example, Peter Green had with Fleetwood Mac, he is a serviceable singer. McVie is the worst sinner here because she sounds so emotionless even when singing about being cheated on by her lover, but it is general malaise of technical ability being values higher than just getting on with it, mistakes and all, with the kind of visceral attack that can make the blues really get you in your gut. Chicken Shack may have been rougher live but on this album the band is “playing blues” rather than owning it.

Having said that, Mr Webb has a very clean, powerful and incisive guitar style, similar to that of Peter Green but somewhat more forceful, and it is a pleasure toe listen to backed by a swinging rhythm section and Christine Perfect’s excellent blues piano. She should have stuck to pounding the keys.  Of the two instrumentals on the album, “Pony And Trap” and “Remington Ride,” the latter is the most enjoyable and memorable because of the incredible guitar hooks, that one would expect form Freddy King who had a number of hits with fiery blues instrumentals. Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream, amongst others, recorded various King numbers, probably because they showcased the virtuosity of the star guitarists in the bands.

OK Ken? was, and is not, a groundbreaking British blues record form the Sixties but it is a good example of the best of British blues from that era before the musicians starting chasing the commercial appeal of being progressive and going into all kinds of directions that may have seemed interesting at the time and nowadays just seem quaint and odd where the blues performances, as nervously earnest as they often were, hold up far better.

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