The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation
Released July 1968 Liberty LBL 83154 1968
Liverpool drummer Aynsley Dunbar had been working with Merseybeat hitmakers The Mojos (their “Everything’s Alright” reached no.9 in 1964) in their later incarnation as “Stu James & The Mojos,” and recorded two singles with them before the group disbanded in 1966. After an invitation to gig with John Mayall – “No rehearsal,” he recalled “just get on the stage and play.” – he was asked to join the Bluesbreakers, and cut the influential album “A Hard Road” with Peter Green and John McVie. “That only lasted for six months,” Dunbar said later, “because Mayall wanted me to stop playing as much as I was, and become more of a ‘Blues drummer.’ I didn’t want to do that, so I decided to leave.” In another interview, he stated ” I eventually got the sack for playing too advanced. He wanted me to sit in the background and just play away.”
But whether he decided to leave, or was sacked – often a grey area in the Bluesbreakers – Dunbar’s next window of opportunity was a call to join ex-Yardbird Jeff Beck’s group, with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ron Wood on bass. Beck was very taken with his new drummer, saying ” He’s fantastic, and has this strange technique…it’s like the rhythm of the chain gang workers in the deep Southern states of America.” But though they cut the endearing single “Tallyman” (written by “Evil Hearted You” and “Heart Full of Soul” author Graham Gouldman) and its B-side “Rock My Plimsoul,” a hot-wired reworking of “Rock Me Baby,” Aynsley quit after four months, saying of Beck, “He was a bastard! He was so loud I couldn’t hear. I didn’t have any mics on my drums; the band had 100-watt Marshall amplifiers. You try and play something nice and subtle with 100 watts of amps blaring in your ear!”
Disillusioned, Dunbar resolved to take control of his own future. “I formed my own band,” he recalled, “and worked it like Mayall did his.” To build his own Bluesbreakers, he enlisted multi-talented Victor Brox from Alexis Korner to provide vocals, guitar, keyboards, and brass; and Keith Tillman, the bassist from Victor’s own band, Blues Train, who had previously played with Stone’s Masonry. However, Tillman was soon to leave, ironically to join Mayall, and he was replaced by Alexander Zigmunt Stanislav Dmochowski, the bass man from Neil Christian’s Crusaders. Completing the group was guitarist John Moreshead, who’d played with The Pirates, both with and without Johnny Kidd, and UK Soul band Shotgun Express, where he’d taken the place of Peter Green as Greeny departed to join Mayall.
Their first single, produced by Mike Vernon for Blue Horizon, is a classic of British Blues in its own right, so until I write my list of Classic British Blues Singles, it merits a mention here.
“Warning,” was composed by Dunbar in a dramatic stop-start rhythm which recalls Mayall’s “Another Kind Of Love” from the “A Hard Road” album on which Aynsley had played. It begins with stentorian bass and drums, and ominous swirling organ, then Brox delivers the doom-laden lyric with tremendous gravitas, his rich voice fully capturing the mood of ill omen conjured up by the title. The song unfolds an unsettling tale of apocalyptic visions, and a stillborn love affair which has destroyed the singer’s world, yet which seems to have taken place only inside his head. It culminates in the lines: “Sorrow grips my voice as I stand here all alone, and watch you slowly take away a love I’ve never known. I was warned about you baby, but my feelings were a little bit too strong.” Oh, do you think so??
It’s seriously disturbing stuff, so much so that it appealed to purveyors of popular paganism Black Sabbath, who covered it on their debut album, Tony Iommi even copping some of Moreshead’s fills for the occasion. And if that fact isn’t disturbing enough in itself, it’s made more bizarre by Ozzy getting the words wrong and singing “I was born without you baby.” Still, let’s draw a veil over that one. The Retaliation’s debut single was strikingly original, an overwhelming anthem of despair that should by rights have catapulted the band to British Blues stardom. Instead, it disappeared almost without trace, and remains disconcertingly hard to find either on CD or vinyl, though fortunately you can still find it on YouTube, and as an Amazon download from “The Perfumed Garden Volume 5.” It’s definitely a darker shade of blue, and well worth three minutes of your time.
However, that’s as far as The Retaliation went with Decca, and the band signed a four-album contract with Liberty, a label previously not much given to British Blues. The producer’s chair was assigned to Ian “Sammy” Samwell, a songwriter from the early days of UK Rock’n’Roll who’d penned hits for Cliff Richard, including the seminal “Move It” on which he’d played rhythm guitar. Samwell had also produced John Mayall’s debut single “Crawling Up A Hill,” and the Small Faces’ top-twenty hit “Whatcha Gonna Do About It?” though his relationship to the album was summed up by Dunbar as “more like an overseer for the management to make sure we didn’t overspend.” The album was released with a cover photo by cool art design group Hipgnosis, and very little info beyond the song titles and production credits, so let’s take it from the top.
Trk.1) “Watch’n Chain” begins with a resonating tom-tom, and the pattering of a lightly-brushed snare, before the rhythmic tapping of wood blocks starts to hit a groove not unlike the Dixie Cups 1965 hit “Iko Iko.” Then, unexpectedly, comes a chorus of whistling, followed by the vocals, as the group delivers the tune in unison rather like a work song, and Brox sings emotively in between the lines. There’s a couple of “whistling solos” which are perhaps not so successful, but overall it’s a great piece with an almost unique atmosphere, and it was chosen for the band’s first single with the new label. The band rarely played it live, as they allegedly found it difficult to perform the whistling parts without cracking up!
Although the composing credits go to the band, the first recorded version of this song is probably Memphis Minnie and Joe McCoy’s 1930 release “Can I Do It For You?” That said, the one which seems to have been the inspiration for the Retaliation’s treatment is “Chevrolet,” Ed & Lonnie Young’s fife & drum arrangement from the Lomax field recordings released on the 1959 “Sounds of the South” LP. Donovan’s unusually-titled “Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)” which is essentially the same song, was issued as the B-side to his single “Turquoise” in October 1965, and it’s worth noting that Dunbar was with The Jeff Beck Group around the time they backed Donovan on his “Barabajagal” LP. Beat Instrumental magazine assessed the track as “a very unusual and really rather clever performance.”
Trk. 2) “My Whiskey Head Woman,” again credited to the band, appears to have taken its inspiration from Tommy McClennan’s 1939 recording, though it’s not the same song. In spite of John “Sonny Boy” Williamson and Yank Rachell’s 1938 recording of “Whiskey Head Blues,” McClennan is usually considered the originator, and he certainly gets an on-record name-check from American Blues-buffs Canned Heat whose more uptempo arrangement was co-incidentally also released in 1968. The Retaliation’s recording here is a very mellow slow Blues, which opens with a rather unexpected cornet solo from the versatile Victor Brox, who, thanks to the miracles of multi-tracking, also delivers delicious, rich vocals and beautiful, tinkling piano fills. The backing kicks up a notch as Brox launches into his horn solo, after which Moreshead provides twelve bars of exquisitely-phrased guitar.
My only criticism for this otherwise faultless track is Brox’s inclination to lapse into a deep-Southern drawl for his semi-spoken “asides,” something which may jar a little with 21 st Century sensibilities. I don’t intend to go too deep into the “Can Blue Men Sing The Whites?” argument, but as someone who’s played and sung the Blues for many years, I’m aware of the incongruities of a white guy from the UK singing songs about the Mississippi, mojos and black cat bones. I can only tell you that I do so out of the deepest love for the music, with great respect for the men and women who created it, and in the awareness that imitation really IS the sincerest form of flattery. I have no doubt that the same applies to Brox, who more recently said “Blues music has given me greater pleasure than I could ever have imagined all those years ago. I’ve met and played with hundreds of fine musicians” (from Jimi Hendrix and BB King to Charlie Mingus and Dr. John) “and have made many friends. I love the music and just want to go on playing it…” and so he does, now aged 77. I hope he’ll keep doing so for many more years.
Trk 3.) “Trouble No More” is no relation to the Muddy Waters track, but rather after the style of BB King’s “Woke Up This Morning,” it’s a 12-bar rumba that turns into a shuffle. Dunbar turns in a more imaginative rumba pattern than the average stixman, but his shuffle is nicely straightforward, and in fact it’s a fine little number, well played. My one complaint is that the mix sounds a little weak, perhaps because of the unusual stereo panning which leaves guitar & piano both together on the right, with nothing to take up the left but half of Aynsley’s drumkit.
Trk. 4) “Double Lovin.” This track is one of the jewels of the album, and in my humble estimation, one of the hidden gems of British Blues. Credited: Brox/Moreshead, it’s an extremely laid back slow Blues, with an unusual 4,1,4,1,5,4,1 chord sequence. Dunbar plays with brushes on the snare drum, and executes delicious rolls like a rattlesnake, while Brox contributes gentle acoustic rhythm guitar and beautiful, clotted cream vocals, with just a hint of reverb. But it’s Moreshead who shines above all, producing guitar fills and solos of such elegance and beauty that they easily rival anything done at the time by Clapton or Green. Rumour has it that Moreshead was in the running to join Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, but instead John chose Mick Taylor. Beats me why! An unforgettable bit of British Blues.
Trk.5) “See See Baby” is a rocking rendition of the much-covered standard “See See Rider.” and it’s the same arrangement of the song that Chicken Shack used on their debut album “Forty Blue Fingers.” Originally recorded as a slow Blues by Ma Rainey in the mid 1920’s it’s been through many incarnations and been re-worked in many different styles since, with versions from such diverse artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Lead Belly, Wee Bea Booze, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Bill Hayley, and Peggy Lee. It’s in good hands here, with fine vocals and barrelhouse piano from Brox and tasty licks from Moreshead. Nice drumming, natch, though Dmochowski’s bass is a bit under-recorded, robbing the cut of some of its drive.
Trk.6) “Roamin An Ramblin.” Victor Brox gets authorship credits for this piano led shuffle, which has an unusual turnaround that goes up through the flattened third, rather like Rice “Sonny Boy” Miller’s “Help Me.” The vocals are double-tracked, unusual in Blues, and there are some creative rhythmic accentuations, but by ‘eck, those cymbals bite your ears. Easy there, Aynsley!
Trk.1) “The Sage Of Sydney Street.” The composer is listed as “Unknown” which is odd in itself as I’d have presumed it must, perforce, have been written by someone in the band, but the punning title gives no further clues. Suffice it to say, it’s a bass solo. Now, I’ve got nothing against bassists, I used to be one myself. And I’ve got nothing against Alex Dmochowski. I accept that bass solos can be an exciting part of a live performance, yet a studio version requires a very dedicated breed of listener. If I was feeling facetious, I’d say it was for “stoners” only, but I used to be one of those myself, too.
Trk. 2) “Memory Pain.” A dark pun on “Memory Lane” perhaps? Percy “Poet Of The Blues” Mayfield, composer of Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack” recorded “Memory of Pain” for Specialty in 1953, where it was a warm, smoky slow blues, but re-recorded it for Tangerine in 1964 with a rumba backbeat, stinging guitar, and an imposing brass riff. John Lee Hooker’s 1964 “Serve Me Right To Suffer” seems to have been substantially based on Mayfield’s song, though in a somewhat different arrangement.
Fast-forward to 1968, Aynsley and the boys have cannily melded both versions together. Now it’s back to being a slow blues, with the brass riff translated to tremolo guitar – played through a Leslie, maybe? Brox’s vocals are beautifully rich and “dark brown” but have a rather menacing quality, recalling the mood of the debut single, “Warning.” There’s a surprisingly understated 24 bar guitar solo from John, and, after one dramatic stop-time verse, Victor delivers a piping organ solo, before everything quietens back down again. The band’s full power is held back, right until the last verse, when everything kicks in with a vengeance. The dynamics and sense of ambience here are excellent, and it’s worthy of note that Thin Lizzy seem to have taken this as a template for their 1981 version.
Trk. 3) “Mutiny.” Credited Dunbar /Moreshead is another instrumental, a slightly jazzy and very busy one this time. It features, of course, the excellent, but for all that, inescapable drum solo. I can’t fault Aynsley’s technique but again, I’m sure it went down better live! Contrast this for a moment with that other Classic Album, “Halfbreed,” the debut LP from Keef Hartley, who’d been Dunbar’s drumming replacement in the Bluesbreakers. Hartley managed to record the whole LP without including a drum solo . He cleverly worked his solos into the songs, instead of presenting them unaccompanied – job done!
If this album suffers from anything, it’s from a strange weakness in the mixing. The disc was apparently delayed because of three failed attempts to record at the Blue Horizon Club, and I wonder if that atmosphere would have given better results. Here the drums appear quite close-up and high in the mix, perhaps reflecting Dunbar’s desire to show subtleties in his playing, while the rest of the instruments, particularly the bass, often sound rather thin by comparison. Part of me can’t help wishing they’d stayed with Blue Horizon and perhaps got a more sympathetic production. But then so many other Classic British Blues albums are the result of Decca/Blue Horizon productions, that maybe I’ve just become ingrained to that style. If you want to hear the band in a different context, there are a couple of nice clips from French TV’s “Bouton Rouge” on YouTube – look for “Tore Down” and “Mean Old World” – where the mono mix gels very well, and the Retaliation kick some serious Blues butt! But on this album, the great strength is in the slow numbers, which are genuinely gorgeous, and raise the level to well above the commonplace.
The band recorded three more albums for Liberty, though by the fourth one, “Remains To Be Heard,” Aynsley had quit the group, and it had to be completed with other musicians, including Brox’s wife Annette and drummer Keith Bailey. Dunbar later told “Modern Drummer” magazine: “I had that group for about three years, and we built a following around the country. Then the band’s ego got too much for me to cope with and I had to dump them. They thought that because we had got to the point where we were selling out everywhere and making quite a bit of money, that we had reached stardom. No way could I tell them that they had just reached the first step and we had a lot more steps to go. They were already acting like stars. So I decided it was time to get rid of that band and start another one.” Geez, Aynsley, what a buzzkill!
Dunbar of course has worked his way to international stardom, playing with such names as Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Nils Lofgren, Journey, Whitesnake, and Jefferson Starship. Brox, Moreshead and Dmochowski went on to play with Graham Bond’s Holy Magick, and the latter pair were also part of ex-Undertaker Jackie Lomax’s ill-fated band Heavy Jelly. After a spell in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” singing the part of Caiaphas the High Priest, Victor Brox has continued to be part of the British Blue Scene in bands like Mainsqueeze (with John O’Leary and Dick Heckstall-Smith) and his own Blues Train, while his daughter Kyla Brox is also a noted Blues and Soul singer in her own right. But let’s remember the group at its best, with John Mayall’s comments of the day to Melody Maker. “The Retaliation are a fine band. They are one of the few British groups playing contemporary Blues music reflecting the world today and not just reproducing Blues from years ago that the audience have on record at home.” Amen to that.
© Stevie King 2015 for the British Blues Archive.