“Undead” – Ten Years After
Recorded 14th May 1968.
Released 16th August 1968 on Deram DML/SML 1023
In the Fifties, it had been Jazzmen like Chris Barber and Ken Colyer who began introducing The Blues to Britain, and in the Sixties one group of extremely talented musicians turned the tables and started bringing Jazz back into British Blues. Those men were Alvin Lee, Ric Lee, Leo Lyons and Chick Churchill, and the band was appropriately called Ten Years After.
Ten Years After, often referred to simply as TYA, were formed by guitarist Alvin Lee & bassist Leo Lyons, from the ashes of a Nottingham band formerly known variously as The Jaycats, The Jaymen, and The Jaybirds, who, like Chicken Shack, were also veterans of Hamburg’s notorious Star Club. Drummer Ric (no relation) Lee had joined in 1965, and when the group moved to London, classically-trained organist Chick Churchill became involved – firstly as a “roadie,” and then as a fully-fledged member, when the band got a job backing chart-topping vocal trio The Ivy League, who scored hits with ‘Funny How Love Can Be’ and ‘Tossing & Turning.’
The now quartet, working under the name “Blues Trip,” signed with manager Chris Wright, and played a high-profile gig at The Marquee Club under the name “Blues Yard” supporting the anarchic Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. This led to a residency, yet another name change, and an invitation to play the 1967 Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival. Wright negotiated a record deal with new, high fidelity Decca subsidiary Deram, and their eponymous debut LP was released in October 1967.
Through Deram’s experimental “Deramic Sound System” worked well for ambitious projects like ‘Days of Future Passed’ by the Moody Blues, (where the band collaborated with the London Festival Orchestra) the label’s insistence on aural clarity resulted in the Ten Years After debut displaying a crispness and purity that seemed incompatible with what was, at the time, a hard-rocking bar band. Sales in the UK were not encouraging, but it received enough airplay in the States to reach the ears of concert promoter Bill Graham, who was impressed by the band’s musicianship, and invited them to tour America in 1968.
Leo Lyons recalls, “After the first album came out, we got the letter from Bill Graham saying he’d be glad to book us if we’d like to come over. So we put together the American tour and we didn’t have time to do a studio album, so we did the live album.” And it’s this live album, recorded at Klook’s Kleek and jokingly named “Undead,” which redresses the balance, and gives the band back the dirt, drive and energy that the debut album lacks. It’s astonishingly well-recorded and produced for a live recording of the day, and richly deserves its place in this collection.
Ric Lee noted: “Klook’s was practically next door to Decca studios and John Mayall had already recorded (his debut album) from there by tossing mic. leads over the roof into Studio Two’s mixing desk. Unfortunately when we wanted to record ‘Undead,’ Studio Two was booked for another session. Roy Baker and tape operator Peter Rynston solved the problem by dragging a mixing desk used for classical locations into the canteen at the back of Decca Studios complex. They fitted limiters, echo and reverb, doctored the wiring, and again threw leads across the roof at Klook’s.” According to Ric, the LP was intended for US release only, to accompany their tour, but was brought out in the UK after “vociferous protests” from the group’s fans. The resulting vinyl album is barely 38 minutes long and features five numbers, two of them instrumentals, with briefest of sleeve notes from Producer, Mike Vernon:
“ TEN YEARS AFTER. Alvin Lee, Leo Lyons, Chick Churchill and Ric Lee, who together have become one of the biggest club attractions in England. Their music knows no compromise – it’s straight down the line. All four boys are musical gymnasts – their gymnastics going hand in hand with inventiveness; and that inventiveness is at its most exciting on stage in front of an appreciative audience. That’s why TEN YEARS AFTER are presented here “Live.” It’s loud and tough – but honest. “
Trk 1: “I May Be Wrong, But I Won’t Be Wrong Always.” Confusingly credited on the label to the whole band, but on the sleeve to Alvin Lee alone, this is not exactly an original composition. In fact it’s a kind of a cover of a 1936 Brunswick Recording titled “Boogie Woogie” (I May Be Wrong) credited to Count Basie and his Orchestra, with “vokal (sic) chorus” by Jimmy Rushing.
It’s in the style of a rocking Swing number, with lyrics taken from more songs than just the Basie record, but Alvin sings them all with acceptable determination, and you’d have to be hard of heart or hearing not to be impressed by his warm tone and seemingly effortless super-fast runs. Mind you, Chick’s equally capable of a turn of speed himself when the organ solo comes round. Ric’s drumming is light and nimble throughout, driving and always supportive, and Leo plays his ’62 Fender Jazz bass with all the force and slap you’d normally reserve for an upright – photos show where he wore the finish down to the wood with the mighty power of his plucking.
Leo’s solo elicits well-deserved applause before the ensemble kicks back in, making their accentuations as if they were a big band with a brass section, and there’s such authority and conviction in their playing that it’s hard to remember these are only four young Brits banging it out in an upstairs room at a pub, with no stage. This combination of musical maturity and adrenaline overdrive certainly delivers the goods.
Trk.2) “Woodchopper’s Ball” is loosely based on the Woody Herman staple, though all they have in common is the 12-bar Swing format. Unsurprisingly, a young Alvin Lee learned to play the clarinet, and would often play along with the original record, until the coming of skiffle lured him over to the guitar. Actually, here it sounds a little like Track One, only faster and without the vocals. Of course in the original set order (as revealed on the expanded CD reissue) it’s quite well removed from Track One, and you may well wonder they why put the two so close together, but a number of cuts were omitted from the album not only because of the time limitations inherent in vinyl, but because they duplicated titles from the debut LP.
Still, despite the similarity to its predecessor, the speed, accuracy and vitality are simply stunning. The band is plainly totally committed to what they’re doing, and the audience is with them one hundred per cent. Remarkably it picks up even more speed after a couple of minutes, and Alvin throws in the guitar solo from Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” just before the 36 bar bass solo, where corny old exhortations like “One more time!” really don’t seem out of place. Seven-and-a-half minutes of glorious, accelerated Swing.
Trk. 1) “Spider in My Web” is Alvin’s obligatory slow 12-bar, and it begins with a really deliciously smooth guitar solo which shows Lee really does appreciate that one or two notes can sometimes do what twenty can’t. Lyrically it’s not amazing – The Stones do much more with an arachnid theme in ‘The Spider and The Fly’ on the flip side of ‘( I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’- but it gives the group something to hang their playing on. And though the keyboard goes a little overboard on reverb at first, when the band starts to double up on the tempo and swing it a bit more, everything comes together. Alvin kicks into a biting, stop-time solo that’s ridiculously knuckle-cracking, but it only lasts 12 bars before we’re back into the verse. The vocals sound a little on the thin side, perhaps, but everything else here is seriously mellow. Nice.
Trk.2) “Summertime/Shantung Cabbage.” I’m really not sure about the intro to this – it sounds almost like a warm up for the drummer, and perhaps it is. Ric rolls repeatedly round the kit, while Alvin plays the tune (well, almost!) to the Gershwin classic on his own. The band finally kicks into it all together, with the sufficient amount of swing, but after one verse it’s over, and the drum solo begins. Now, as a guitarist I’m hardly qualified to appreciate it, but it’s certainly light and limber, and a far cry from the dull and deliberate drubbing of Mr. Baker. And Lord knows Ric Lee deserves a workout after everything his band-mates have delivered, until suddenly, the guitar goes a bit Hendrixy, and to my surprise it’s all over – but to great applause, let me add. I guess you had to be there.
The question that really vexes me is, why name your drum solo “Shantung Cabbage?” Well, Shantung is a type of silk fabric, historically from the province of Shandong, often used for bridal gowns. And perhaps the Cabbage comes from Charleston’s Cabbage Row, a structure from the American Revolutionary War era, which at one time was mostly inhabited by the African American families of freed slaves, who would sell cabbage, right from their window sills. Cabbage Row was the setting for DuBose Heyward’s novel ‘Catfish Row,’ and his 1925 novel, ‘Porgy,’ was also the basis for Gershwin’s opera, ‘Porgy & Bess,’ whence comes the song ‘Summertime.’ Tenuous, I admit, but that’s the best I can do, folks. Unless you prefer the Groucho Marx version, “Do you know, it sometimes requires years to bring the Shantung and the Cabbage together? They don’t like each other..!”
Trk. 3) “I’m Going Home.” Yes, this is the first outing for the number which soon made TYA world-famous. After his astonishingly polite introduction, Alvin kicks off with a few bars of flashy guitar, then the band catches up with him, and they boogie the heck out of it while Mr. Lee runs through his super-speed licks. The dynamics are controlled very nicely, and they bring it down low while Alvin throws in a bit of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,’ before taking it up to fever pitch and giving it a couple of finishing choruses. Cue rapturous applause, and darn well-deserved.
I remember hearing them play this song to a packed house at the old Marquee Club in Wardour Street, and being sufficiently impressed to buy their first album, then wondering why it didn’t sound like the band I’d seen. But now that mystery is explained – the band I’d seen were here, on “Undead.”
Melody Maker said “TYA object to being labelled a blues group, but with Alvin Lee’s brilliant guitar a major feature, they will have trouble persuading me that everything they do isn’t firmly rooted in Blues.” Au contraire, mon vieux, if you look at the group’s influences, you will see almost everything they did was firmly rooted in Jazz!
Alvin named Big Bill Broonzy, Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins, Louis Bonfa & Charlie Byrd as influences, while Leo Lyons quoted his as Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Percy Heath, Red Mitchell & Jimmy Blanton, and said he also particularly liked Scott LaFaro and Richard Davis, Eddie Gomez & Charlie Hayden. Chick Churchill included Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith, Thelonius Monk & Oscar Peterson among his influences, and Ric Lee cited Joe Morello, Buddy Rich & Louie Bellson.
Apart from Big Bill, nary a Blueser among them, although some time after Alvin’s sad passing, Ric recounted: “The press tagged him with ‘speed fingers.’ It was very difficult for him to live that down, when he didn’t play something fast. But he was a fantastic country picker. When I first met him, we used to play Blue Moon of Kentucky. He was excellent with early Elvis stuff. Alvin was totally enamoured with Elvis.”
The original vinyl album is now a tremendous rarity, though the 2002 “expanded” CD re-issue is still available, and features a number of delightful bonuses. The running order (presumably the entire set that was recorded at Klooks?) is as follows:
1) “Rock Your Mama” is a variant version of ‘Rock Me Baby’ with altered lyrics, with a cool, smooth solo and a couple of dropped-down verses in a shuffle format, which motor along very pleasingly.
2) “Spoonful” is the same Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf number that Cream covered on their contemporaneous “Fresh Cream” LP, though I’d pity Mr Clapton if it had ever come to a duel with Mr Lee. Speed aside, Alvin also had a Strat pick-up incorporated into his Gibson 335 which gave his tones a bite that other hollow-body players just couldn’t get.
3) “I May Be Wrong, But I Won’t Be Wrong Always.”
4) “Summertime” / “Shantung Cabbage.”
5) “Spider in My Web.”
6) “(At the) Woodchopper’s Ball.”
7) “Standing at the Crossroads” This adaptation of the Robert Johnson song manages to survive comparison with the Cream version by virtue of being more musically coherent and concise. Lee’s voice is agreeably gritty and bluesy, even if he does make up his own words.
8) “I Can’t Keep from Crying, Sometimes” is the Al Kooper/Blues Project number based on Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Lord, I Can’t Keep From Crying,’ and includes a very extended guitar solo into which Alvin works the riffs from ‘You Don’t Love Me,’ ‘Steppin’ Out,’ ‘Smokestack Lightnin’,and ‘Foxy Lady,’ before delivering another staggering cluster of notes and a burst of controlled feedback.
When his tuning gets a little suspect, he overcomes it by turning his bottom string down and delivering a “bass solo” with a snatch of ‘Peter Gunn’ in it, and later on, as he re-tunes, the riff from ‘Paint It, Black,’ and a few bars of ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ creep in as well. At over seventeen minutes it’s undoubtedly self-indulgent, and may try the patience of the listener, but the crowd who were there plainly think it’s brilliant. And who am I to argue?
9) “I’m Going Home.”
Whichever way you want to listen to it, “Undead” is both a valuable historic document of the Sixties British Blues Boom, and an enduring endorsement of this fine band’s ability to bring Jazz back into Blues without making it seem “artsy” or inaccessible. In fact, they rock like the Dickens, and in so doing, earn themselves a place among our Classic British Blues Albums.
© Stevie King 2015 for the British Blues Archive.