Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ten Years After as faux bluesmen

I’d read that Alvin Lee of named Ten Years After that way because he started the band ten years after Elvis Presley’s breakthrough in the mid-Fifties. I had also read that Lee was known as a particularly fast fingered guitarist of great technical dexterity. The fist proper exposure I had to the band’s music was the nine minute plus performance of “I’m Going Home” in die Woodstock movie, that ended with someone flinging a watermelon on stage for Alvin Lee to pick up and caraway off on his shoulder. In this clip it was quite clear that Lee could play licks at a blistering speed and it was kind of impressive.

This performance made me think of Ten Years After as blues boogie purveyors with a fleet fingered lead guitarist.

A couple of years later a mate lent me a copy of Cricklewood Green (1970), which gave me a better idea of the kind of blues based rock and roll the band was playing at the time. In due course I bought a cassette tape of TYA’s greatest hits, with more of the same. TYA had some good tunes, fiery playing and were kind of alright though I never quite fell in love with the band. In a manner of speaking I thought of them as the British answer to Grand Funk Railroad though the latter were arguably dumber, at least at the start of their career, than the Brits ever were.

As far as I understand, after the Woodstock movie in particular, TYA, like Humble Pie (who was not in the movie or at Woodstock) and Foghat, concentrated on the US Midwestern market where there was an endless hunger for boogie. TYA broke up in 1974 and Alvin Lee formed Ten Years Later, which was more of a jazz-rock fusion band, emphasizing one of the parts that had made up the TYA sound, and tried to forge a new, progressive direction. This project failed to set the world alight. TYA reformed in 1983 and continued performing until Lee’s death.

At tome point in either the early Eighties or perhaps the mid-Eighties, I acquired Ten Years After (1967), the eponymous debut album with the band members lined up on the front cover in best psychedelic gear, like Pink Floyd at the time, with an also appropriately psychedelic album cover though the music inside was the mix of blues, jazz influences and rock that the band later expanded on and solidified into the mature TYA boogie.

Apart from a low price, the persuading factors that made me buy the record were the presence of versions of “I Can’t Keep Crying Sometimes,” “Spoonful” and “Help Me,” all of which I knew in different versions by respectively The Blues Project, Cream and Sonny Boy Williamson. For the rest TYA threw in their own compositions.

The immediate impression was that TYA was not exactly a standard blues group of the era in the vein of John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac or Chicken Shack, and nothing like Cream. TYA was clearly more ambitious musically and interested in making the blues standards their own without slavishly copying other artists or even the originators. Secondly, Alvin Lee’s faux American accent on some of the tunes was quite grating, since he sounded fake. Neither John Mayall, Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer nor Stan Webb made a serious effort to sound Black, as if they hailed form Mississippi or Chicago. Alvin Lee, and the name even sounded American, must have thought that authenticity in the blues meant sounding like the guys het was trying to emulate.

The third noticeable thing was that the band, although seemingly rooted in a jazz tradition, seemed a lot less subtle as bluesmen than their peers and that Lee’s guitar was a lot more abrasive and rockified than the likes of Peter Green or Eric Clapton. The roots of boogie are already well established on this album. Having said that, the jazz stylings of Lee’s guitar playing were also prominent. This made TYA more sophisticated than some of their contemporaries but also somewhat more irritating.

The original songs were technically good and ably performed but come across as parodies, mostly because of Lee’s faux plantation accent and carefully spontaneous shouts and asides. They are admirable as exercises in style rather than as viscerally enjoyable blues. The sophistication on display here does not do it for me. Even Lee’s obvious technical ability tends to be a bore over the length of the record because it seems to lack any sense of gutbucket life force.   Ten Years After is probably me least favourite Britblues album of all time.  In contrast, I also bought the 1969 debut album of a much less successful and called Killing Floor and these guys seem to be more alive in the blues moment, even if the music consists of a hotpot of blues tropes, and the songs and performances are for that reason much more engaging and agreeable than that of TYA.

The boogie of later period TYA is not a bad thing at all and this is where I can get off on the band, when I expect to have boogie and I get boogie with tunes. Just don’t sell me blues mutton as blues lamb even if the mutton wears a psychedelic shirt.

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