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Babe Ruth - First Base CD (album) cover

FIRST BASE

Babe Ruth

 

Heavy Prog

3.71 | 139 ratings

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siLLy puPPy
4 stars Hatfield, England based guitarist / songwriter Alan Shacklock got his career started all the way back in 1963 with his first band The Juniors at the tender age of 12 but along the way until he would form his self-penned band Shacklock in 1970, he seemed to hook up with all the right players. He not only played with John Glascock of Jethro Tull and his brother Brian who would eventually join The Motels but also played with Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, Carl Palmer of ELP and the late great John Bonham of Led Zeppelin fame. It seemed like destiny was on his side right from the very start as he attracted one interesting character after another into his life. The band Shacklock was created to be that half way point between the possibilities of hard bluesy rock and progressive oriented rock.

While in the band called Shacklock, a young Alan Shacklock would attract the talents of Dave Hewitt (bass), Dick Powell (drums) and Dave Punshon (keyboards) but it wasn't until they found the vocal charm of Janita "Jennie" Haan that the band would really hit their stride. Her inclusion into the mix of things literally changed the entire dynamic flow and it was at this point that the band Shacklock would become the band BABE RUTH, named after the US baseball extraordinaire. While Alan Shacklock had been writing songs for the BABE RUTH debut album FIRST BASE during the two years prior, it was the addition of Haan that sent the creativity into overdrive and then it seems like the doors opened and the red carpets were rolled out as the band found immediate interest from record labels like EMI / Capitol.

BABE RUTH would be treated like royalty as they recorded FIRST BASE at Abbey Road Studios with the assistance of such greats as Tony Clark, Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard and Cockney Rebel. They even commissioned the great album cover art wizard Roger Dean of Yes album fame to conjure up the cover artwork for FIRST BASE although i have to admit that it's one of Dean's less compelling works. While all the venture capitalists seemed to have faith in the ability of BABE RUTH's unique mix of hard rock and prog, it was a surprise that the album did well in Canada by actually going gold, sold respectively in the US but failed to make a dent in the band's native UK where prog rock was in comparison much more popular than North America. While the band may have made it to FIRST BASE, they failed to make a home run.

BABE RUTH carved out a unique slice of prog rock. While often deemed a hard rock album, FIRST BASE can't quite be called a true heavy rocker despite having many tracks that do indeed rock hard and unleash the heavy guitar riffing with the accompanying bluesy soloing. For the most part, FIRST BASE is an intricately designed mix of sophisticated progressive chamber rock that happens to incorporate lots of the elements that were putting prog on the map during the early 70s. In addition, ethnic elements such as a stealthy supply of Latin percussion in the form of congas, bongos and the cabasa found their way into much of the album's tracks. While heavy hitters such as the excellent opener "Well's Fargo" are more aggressively guitar rock oriented, even here there is Latin percussion, a sizzling saxophone solo and interesting time signature chops that deviate from the standard hard rock bands of the era. This track has a funky soul flair that sort of reminds me of the Jackson Five actually.

The heavy heft of the title track however quickly gives way to the more sensual piano driven second track "The Runaways" which offers an ample supply of cello, oboe and symphonic arrangements. While "Wells Fargo" found Haan belting out her best Janis Joplin styled vocals, on "The Runaways" she croons tenderly sounding more like Annie Haslam of Renaissance than the blues rock diva of the previous track. An excellent rendition of the Mothers of Invention's classic "King Kong" provides an interesting instrumental proggy jam for the band to take extra liberties that don't quite work on vocal tracks. The band do wonders with another cover, the exquisite "Black Dog" that didn't come from Led Zeppelin but rather country rocker Jesse Winchester. This beautiful piano based melodic track finds some fancy ivory tinkling, tasty soulful organ runs with the extra heft of syncopated hard rock guitar. Haan belts out some delicious vocal performances on this one.

The band's most successful prog hit came in the form of "The Mexican" which found some air time on prog oriented formats. The track was primarily crafted by Shacklock but inserts various elements of an Ennio Morricone track ("Per Qualche Dollaro In Piu"). The track dishes out the expected Latin rhythms but also contains a vivacious series of guitar riffs that coalesce into the Morricone inspired soundtrack themes. As the album closes with the funky Hammond organ stabs in "The Joker," Shacklock also reprises the heavy rock guitar riffs and Haan reverts back to her Janis Joplin shtick with her bad mama bluesy grit, however her vocal range is impressive as she can suddenly hit high notes and unexpected squeals.

For anyone looking exclusively for a hard rock album, they will surely be disappointed since hard rock is but one important element that is strewn about judiciously yet irregularly throughout the album. While the general gist is that the harder rocking tracks are less proggy and the proggy tracks are less heavy, the truth is that all the tracks have both elements to a certain degree. Really, the only heavy blues based rock tracks are "Wells Fargo," "The Mexican" and "Joker" while the others are more steeped in the progressive rock compositional fortitude that only incorporates the heavier rock elements for a little contrast. Despite the odd mix of elements that BABE RUTH dished out on FIRST BASE, things flow together fairly smoothly and in the end and this is a rather unique sounding album as it takes many of the trends of the era including blues rock, hard rock, prog, jazz and chamber rock and stitch it all together very nicely. The highlight is surely the phenomenal vocal performances of Janita Haan which bring the album to a whole other level.

siLLy puPPy | 4/5 |

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