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4 stars UP ABOVE OUR HEADS [CLOUDS 1966-71]

This is such an important release. Don't get me wrong, I personally don't think that 1-2-3 or Clouds were quite ready to make it all the way, 1-2-3 were too raw, the vocals too dodgy, the recording techniques too inexperienced. Clouds were struggling with the adaptation to the new era, and still had some way to go to catch up. But the significance of this music is the nearest we'll ever get to 1-2-3's profound influence on what happened, you have to look for the clues in between the cracks and tracks.

The Clouds Scrapbook is the nearest link we have between Beatles pop and 70s prog, though it is sounding more and more dated as music and musicianship move on. Yet this is an important album, a milestone on the way to where we are.

Up Above Our Heads is more an album of its time, a neutered 1-2-3 trying hard to emulate those who were influenced by them in the first place. Great musicianship, especially the outstanding organ. I'm not sure about the overall package, but great to hear on CD at last, quality much better than the vinyl version.

Watercolour Days is Clouds first steps towards progressive maturity, and has much to commend it. Strangely enough, the USA embraced it at the time, yet the UK was scathing. It almost seems that one took the glass is half full philosophy, the other the opposite. Some of the recordings here definitely stand the test of time, though it's terribly sad that we don't have the early evidence of 1-2-3 to make true comparisons.

All we have among the bonus tracks is the Marquee recording of America. When put in the context of the times, it's an amazing piece of music, whatever modern critics make of the recording circumstances itself. The so-called Beatles screams on the track sound more like whistles to me, but in any case, isn't it interesting that it was the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, who signed 1-2-3 on the strength of what happened at the Marquee? So perhaps it was screams after all.

The other bonus tracks are thought-provoking too, a darkness seems to hover over the writing, a haunted sound pervades the music and the lyrics in songs like Clockwork Soldier, which is a veritable song-poem, narrated gloomily but with an interesting choir-boy melody in the background. I personally would like to hear the melody more in the foreground, the spoken vocal can lead you to think you're listening to musical avant garde, when it's actually a specific and very clever classical composition. A Day Of Rain is another haunted soundscape, the playing almost simplistic and withdrawn behind the window. Even in the more conventionally-melodic songs like Why Is There No Magic a sense of disillusionment prevails, while The World Is A Madhouse and Shadows have Doors-like echoes, dark images, disturbing thoughts. Once Upon A time is more whimsical lyrically, but you can hear the power of the band, driven along by the tough uncompromising Hammond organ.

Nice to hear the previously vinyl-only Island single, Make No Bones About It/Heritage on CD.

This record is a must.

Report this review (#361884)
Posted Thursday, December 23, 2010 | Review Permalink
4 stars An excellent compilation of this band's outputs.

Clouds........ who ? I had no idea who this band was until two months ago. I did an interview with them and purchased this 2 cd's box from Amazon. Then I got stucked into their world and reviewed their three albums. All of them included here.

Let's start with the packaging here. This box includes one of the best ever booklets I have seen. It is the full Clouds story, compiled and written by one guy called David Wells. Excellent job, David ! The Clouds story is excellent written and includes a lot of very useful stuff. It is a booklet you cannot stop reading if you have started on page. It is that well written. Hence, this booklet is alone worthy a purchase. The booklet also includes the lyrics and linear notes for each individual albums and the extra tracks. It is obvious that the record label BGO Records has spared no money to get this box perfect. That also goes for the sound which is spotless and absolute perfect, as far as I gather on my office stereo rack. Maybe if you put this box on a $ 25 000 stereo rack, the sound may not be perfect. But it is perfect on my rack. The result is a very impressive box which I seriously wish should be copied by other labels too. All praise to BGO Records for this job.

There are 2 cds here. The first CD includes their first two albums Scrapbook and Up Above Our Heads. The latter album was only released in USA and Canada, but never in Europe and world wide. Hence; this is the first world wide release of this album. The sound on the two albums has very probably been cleaned up from the LPs. Which is both fair and right. You will find my reviews of these two albums somewhere else on these pages. But let me shortly ad that they and their music in general sounds like a crossbreed between The Beatles (who was also managed by Clouds manager Brian Epstein) and The Nice. The music is very much Hammond organ based and we are talking Proto Prog here in it's truest sense.

The second CD contains their third album Watercolour Days and nine bonus tracks. I again refer to my review of the album. The nine bonus tracks are the A and B side of a single, unreleased material and their version of Simon & Garfunkel's massive hit America, later also covered by Yes. Their version was probably spurred on by Clouds, or 1-2-3 as they were called back then. I very much prefer Clouds version which has a lot more bite and meat than the Yes version. In short, the nine bonus tracks is all great and would had made a great album.

In short; this is an excellent documentation of a band who influenced David Bowie, Keith Emerson, The Nice, ELP and scores of other artists and bands. The price of this box is also very reasonable too. It is therefore close to being an essential purchase for any prog head with a bit of self respect. I am a very happy owner of this box which goes straight into my top 5 of the alltime best compilation boxes. Hence some awarded stars.

4 stars

Report this review (#388381)
Posted Friday, January 28, 2011 | Review Permalink
Easy Livin
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
4 stars I've looked at Clouds from both sides now

Having disbanded after the release of their third album "Watercolour days" in 1971, the world quickly forgot about Clouds. This travesty was finally put right in 2010 when BGO records put together this superb compilation. Not only do we have for the first time ever, all three of the band's albums, regardless of whether you live in Europe, North America or anywhere else, but we have a selection of 9 well chosen bonus tracks not previously available anywhere.

All three albums are carefully remastered, bringing out the essence of each perfectly. The first CD gathers in the band's first album "The Clouds scrapbook" (released in Europe only) and their second album "Up above our heads" (released in North America only). The three tracks which appeared on both are only present once, slightly disrupting the running order of "Up above our heads". It would have been good though if the full running order of that album had at least been listed somewhere within the package.

The band's third album "Watercolour days" (was this "Watercolor" in North America?!) occupies the first half of the second CD. Reviews of all three albums are of course posted under the Clouds entry on this site.

It is though to the bonus tracks that we head for this review. The first pair of these are a single A and B side from 1968, the band's first recordings as Clouds having changed their name from 1-2-3. The A-side, "Make no bones about it" is very much of its time, offering a Barrett-era-Floyd/Wood-era-Move like slice of psychedelia, but it failed to garner much interest. Had it done so, which in retrospect with the right exposure it could easily have done, the single may have set Clouds on the road to fame and fortune. The B- Side "Heritage" is a more ambitious story song, which now sounds a little clumsy but at the time would have certainly been viewed as progressive. The track features a captivating organ interlude, but the vocals are weak.

The following three tracks were recorded for the "Watercolour days" album, but to the dismay of the band they were omitted from the track listing by band manager Terry Ellis. "Why is there no magic" is a multi-tracked Beatles like pastiche with a strong melody. The track's omission from the album borders on the criminal, this being one of the band's strongest recordings ever. "The world is a madhouse" and "Shadows" are interesting but less essential, the Jim Morrison like vocals betraying an obvious attempt to imitate the Doors.

"Once upon a time" appears to be a leftover track from "Up above our heads", but this time the decision to overlook it was probably justified. Not a bad song, just undistinguished. "A day of rain" and "Clockwork soldier" are further leftovers from "Watercolour days". These tracks though were only seen through to the point of being demo tracks at the time, although the band had written them some years earlier. The sound on these tracks is different though, with a more modern feel. It turns out this is due to Billy Ritchie revisiting the recordings some years later, and adding synthesisers and processing the vocals! Admittedly he has done a good job on them, even if the authenticity has been tarnished. "Clockwork soldier" is based on the reading of a poem over sympathetic instrumentation, and as such sounds as if it has been lifted straight from Jim Morrison's solo album "An American prayer".

The most significant of the bonus tracks here is an 8 minute live recording of the band's cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America". Proving that there is nothing new under the sun, this interpretation pre-dates the famous Yes version by some distance. While by no means identical to Yes' version, many of the nuances are the same. This track alone finally confirms Clouds rightful place in prog history, the recording actually coming from a time when they were still known as 1-2-3. It also demonstrates how much Terry Ellis sanitised their work before the début album was released.

The package is rounded out by an excellent booklet containing an essay on the entire history of the band and the lyrics to the first album (reproduced from the gatefold LP sleeve).

In short, a wonderful way to discover the criminally under-appreciated history and influence of this fine proto-prog band.

With grateful thanks to our Interviews guru Torodd, who drew my attention to the availability of this superb package, which retails at a very reasonable price.

Report this review (#399662)
Posted Sunday, February 13, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars An important anthology, bringing together at last the three crucial recordings of an enigmatic but essential band. Already extensively reviewed in these pages, the three albums tell the somewhat sad tale of a trio that was the catalyst for much that happened, yet it remains quite unknown in vast swathes of the public mind.

Part of the fault for that lies in the inability of the group to transform itself into the new age. After laying the foundations for much of what became known as progressive rock, the band curiously failed to capitalise on their own advantage, staying almost stuck in the mud, unable to transform their own writing into something comparable to the exciting re-inventions of existing compositions that had so transformed musical thinking in 66-67. We get a glimpse of the real thing in the bonus tracks, with the sole known recording of 1-2-3 and America. It's difficult now to transport ourselves back to 1967 and imagine the impact this kind of arrangement made on young impressionable and talented musicians, such as the members of Yes, The Nice, King Crimson. Yes later even produced their own version of the same song, arranged in the same fashion as 1-2-3, but the originators of the form faltered and lost their way.

This sad trail is laid out on a plate in these three albums, wonderful songs (but stilted at times by uneasy performances and a band unsure of what to do with them) sitting awkwardly side by side with riff-like pieces (often somewhat mundane constructions whose purpose was to enable the individual musicians to parade their particular talents), the two never really meeting in harmony, except at rare moments, such as in the opening section and verses of Watercolour Days (the title track), the middle section of Waiter, the verses of I am the Melody. These fleeting moments give glimpses of a rare talent that never truly found expression.

The remaining bonus tracks only add fuel to this theory, the striking moments are almost exclusively Ritchie's songs, Why is there no Magic, A Day of Rain, Clockwork Soldier; lovely indeed, sometimes profound, but what have they to do with Clouds? Not much. This is the fatal schism of songs and band, still exposing itself 40 years on.

Report this review (#435961)
Posted Wednesday, April 20, 2011 | Review Permalink
5 stars Its funny the way things turn out; this group, lost to history, turns out to be THE prime catalyst for UK progressive rock, yet due to lack of early recordings, even now it doesn't get the credit it deserves, not even on this site, which owes them so much. Then again, this is partly their own fault. When the group finally did record, we got Scrapbook, which is caught between pop and progressive, and full of stuff the band didn't even play on stage. Then Up Above Our Heads, with long boring solos, maybe the odd good song, but nothing that can give younger proggers, stuck with accepted history, a clue about the validity of the claims made on behalf of the band. Even Watercolour Days, perhaps the most clear and finest album of the three, is lagging behind the progressive rock of the day, especially in the realm of keyboards, relying on organ and piano, not synths, sound and style lagging behind ELP, Yes, Crimson, hugely ironic when you consider how this thing got started in the first place. The bonus tracks don't help much either, mainly that same mixture of pop and early prog that seems largely unexceptional in style for that time, albeit containing some stand-out songs and playing. Its only when we get to the live track of 1-2-3 playing America at the Marquee in 1967 that we begin to see what the fuss was about, the whole reason why we have Yes, The Nice, King Crimson etc. In isolated quality, these albums would earn somewhere between 3 and 4 stars, but we must give 5 stars for the importance and potency of this great lost group.
Report this review (#510252)
Posted Saturday, August 27, 2011 | Review Permalink
4 stars From what I have gathered, my ears are facing the missing link between rock and prog, as it were. Mind you, the transition and development of rock'n'roll had been quite an impressive one. No matter where in time rock music was born (in 1948 or 1954 or whenever) the progression from basic three chord blues and/or country and folk to full blown psychedelica and early stages of hard rock was pretty impressive. The greats, like Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Who (to name a few) had taken rock music to different heights and new territories which proved that pop and rock certainly could be just as much an art form as classical or jazz. All this laid the foundation for things to come. The melding and merging of different genres and styles eventually led to the creation of progressive rock.

Nowadays progressive rock is an array of styles and genres, and anything goes, but in the early stages of prog elements of classical and jazz seemed to be the dominator in rock, alongside folk. Maybe I'm ranting but when I listen to alot of the early bands, and certainly that's the case with Clouds, the influence of jazz and classical is very distinct.

Since there were no real prog to speak of in 1968, as in the movement we all know and love, bands had to invent it. Thus one had no ready made mould to go by. It was simply a strong desire and inclination to break out of the rock mould and expand into any other shape and form. As this review concerns Clouds I have to put forth that they, alongside other pioneers, at times do feel forced in their efforts. The experimentation with tempos and chord progressions are all very commendable but that does not mean it turns out in the best of fashions. They try too hard and the result is forced. Well, at times anyway.

There are obviously alot of talent in this band. Their first album (1968) is sort of typical for it's time. Baroque-ish pop but with aspirations. The lengthy "Waiter, there's something in my soup", for instance, hints at the desires of the band. But is it really all that great? I think it's okay, or slightly better, as far as ambitious song writing goes. The horns are quite effective in giving the track boost and there is an interesting dose of big band jazz. This is where their early prog leanings really comes to the fore. The next album (1969) is really the same album as the first but with the addition of a few tracks. The Benny Goodman number "Sing,sing,sing" is really the best of the lot, showcasing their progressive talents. Great organ, bass and drums. An amazing track.

The best of the three albums is "Watercolor days". Recorded in 1971 I do feel, though the album is a really good one, that time has passed them by. There were certainly other bands that had released progressive albums far more challenging than this one. It has an ELP-ish attitude, circa 1970, though a lot more accessible. I really feel that they fell into the backwaters of prog. If they, as I've been told, spearheaded the development of prog they had by this time become figures in the background. Competent and ambitious in their own right but no longer groundbreaking.

This compilation is really a very good one, encompassing almost their entire recorded output. All three albums, some singles and other treats gives this band a chance to glow. And it's cheap too! I got it for 10£ and that's really a bargain. This is proto-prog and you may not find anything too challenging here but there's a whole lot of good things to enjoy, if you share my taste in late 60's, early 70's progressive rock. Interesting and charming. The organ is splendid too and that alone is worth the price for this wonderfully packaged compilation.

Report this review (#1484550)
Posted Monday, November 9, 2015 | Review Permalink

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