I always thought that one day if I made it onto the TV quiz show Mastermind my specialist subject would be ‘British Psychedelia 1966 to 1969.’ It’d be a breeze.
John Humphries would kick off with the first question something like “What was the B side of Dantalian’s Chariot only single?” “That’s easy,” I reply, “it is the Sun Came Bursting Through My Cloud.” On to question two – “what links pop psych legends The Misunderstood with prog rockers The High Tide?” “You are going to have to try harder than that,” I counter with a cocky flick of my head. “Everyone knows it is the guitarist Tony Hill.”
“Ok,” says John, “question 3 which British band issued the prototype concept album The Ballad of Fred The Pixie in 1968?”
“Come again?” I stutter. “Surely you must know them,” says John. “They also had a trio of singles on Pye…”
“Errr Pass,” says I crestfallen. My confidence shattered I finish with five and get scooby on the general knowledge round.
So it turns out that this self proclaimed authority on mid 60s English psych has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to The Ballad of Fred The Pixie. It does exist and is the only album released by London based hipsters Five’s Company. In fact the band also released a trio of singles on Pye and have almost an album’s worth unissued material to boot. Thankfully for us all of it has been rounded up and released this month on CD by Grapefruit Records.
If I had mulled it over a little more I might have recalled that that Five’s Company did record for Saga Records and were featured on the ace compilation Swinging London which came out the best part of a decade ago. That comp is wonderful – a fantastic mix of psych, harmony pop, weird blues and TV soundtrack style instrumental shenanigans. However I think it is safe to say that very few of the bands on Saga are cherished these days. Part of the problem might be the way that Saga pushed the albums out, recorded very cheaply (sometimes in a primary school!) and then sneaked out on low quality recycled vinyl.
And such was the the fate of The Ballad of Fred The Pixie . But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Five’s Company were actually a quintet of students who landed in the capital’s swinging epicentre – that’ll be Kings Road then – in the mid 60s and after mastering their instruments in breaks between lectures, scored a deal with Pye. The three single releases show a band that hovers somewhere between the protest folk of Dylan and Donovan and the Kinksy observational type pop of say Dedicated Follower of Fashion. In fact one of the two contenders for their finest moment is their third 45 a stellar cover of The Kinks Session Man which even trumps the Face To Face version.
The other absolute gem on this CD and a track that inexplicably appears to have eluded generations of bootleg compilers is Big Deal, the flipside of the band’s second release Some Girls. Sure it is a Dylan pastiche, but singer Eddie Broadbridge spits out the lyrics – a tale about a rich girl who gets above herself (sound familiar, coughs Jagger/Richards) – in such an animated way that it can’t help but connect and there’s a great little finale too!
Before Saga let them loose in the studio they also recorded Friends And Mirrors, a snappy slice of pop psych with some imaginative and very effective time signature and chord changes. It might well have propelled them into the charts had it sneaked out. It finally made its bow last year on the Cherry Red compilation Let’s Go Down And Blow Our Minds. After it failed to secure a release the band all but folded only to be re-ignited when the budget label came knocking.
The Ballad of Fred The Pixie is a song cycle of sorts quite probably inspired by Sgt Pepper and The Who Sell Out, although it actually mirrors SF Sorrow more than those two albums, which charts a life from conception (Darling I’ve Got Something To Tell You) through to death (Time To Pop Off).
It has all the usual traditional Saga problems – very thin sound, sloppy recording (see als0 Magic Mixture, Five Day Week Straw People) – nevertheless the quality of the songwriting shines through. Not every song hits the mark musically, but there are several wonderful Kinksian gems here, especially The School Boy (which could be an out-take from Something Else). The strongest performances though are reserved for If This Is Love, a Zombie-esque ballad and Happy To Be Here, a reflection on a life in a slightly odd 6/8 time.
Sure the album is a curio, but give it a few spins and it grows on you. As for the CD, those Pye singles and the unreleased stuff makes this is an essential purchase for any lovers of The Kinks in their mid 60s prime.
Buy it here.