Sunday, 12 August 2012

Horace 'Waiting for the moon' (1971)

All designs by John Hurford

My sleevenotes for the 7" vinyl-only release on Shagrat Records.



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Enigmatic and ephemeral, Horace barely existed.  No gigs, one recording session, but three marvellously atmospheric pieces captured on acetate on 1st January 1971, carefully stored by bass-player Jim Mercer for over forty years and now lovingly dusted off by Shagrat Records for your delight. 

Taking their name from the eye-catching spine of a book by the Roman poet of the same name, Horace evolved out of the Autumn ’70 hash-jamming sessions of Ric Parnell (drums and vocals) and Jim Mercer (guitar and bass). Ric, son of well-respected drummer and band-leader Jack Parnell, had finished his first stint in Atomic Rooster (the flamboyant trio led by ex-Crazy World of Arthur Brown organist Vincent Crane), briefly replacing Carl Palmer in the summer of 1970. He had also played, recorded with, and apparently subsequently re-joined, Horse who, led by guitarist Rod Roach, released an album on RCA now considered a ‘prog-psych monster’. 

Through 1968 and 1969 Jim had been actively involved in the British blues scene, playing guitar on the vibrant London club circuit (Fishmongers Arms, Cooks Ferry Inn, Klooks Kleek, etc) with The Tenement Blues Band which evolved into Uncle Bud (both led by one of the coolest but criminally neglected psychedelic blues guitarists on the planet Graham Neil). Also involved were bassist Trevor Stevens from Danny Kirwan’s pre-Fleetwood Mac band, Boilerhouse, and drummer Phil Lenoir of Black Cat Bones and, subsequently, the magnificent but ill-fated Shagrat (with Steve Peregrin Took and Larry Wallis) after whom this record label is named. However, when Graham took his red Gibson 335 to join the outrageous freeform psych-blues outfit Screw (further details of whom can be found in the sleeve-notes to their Shagrat records 10” vinyl release) and, with the blues-boom slowly fading, Uncle Bud passed quietly away.

Recently inspired by the spectacular bass-playing twin catalysts of Phil Lesh and Rockette Morton, Jim had decided to switch instruments and joined what became the last gasp of Horse with Ric on drums.  Jim and Ric built up an immediate musical rapport and they began working out some original material and jamming with a variety of other musicians from the South London / Kingston / Esher area (including players from the Rare Bird / Elio-Karfeneti / Fruit Machine axis), often turning up with their kit at local College and University gigs (part of a circuit which regularly attracted the cream of the ‘underground’ bands) and sitting in ‘after hours’. Jim fondly recalls a jam he and Ric had at Sussex Uni with some of Muddy Waters’ band and another at Surrey Uni in Guildford with Vertigo artists Gracious where the expanded line-up included two drummers and two bass-players.

Through his friend, Andy ‘Ced’ Curtis, an engineer at Central Sound Studios in Denmark Street (also guitarist in freak-beat band Fruit Machine who issued three excellent 45s in 1968/9), Ric managed to secure some studio time for him and Jim to record a couple of their songs for posterity.  Andy was a couple years older than Ric but they’d previously discovered a common interest in music while working together as porters at Bentalls Department Store in Kingston and, with Ric intent on becoming a pro-player, Andy introduced him to some of the best local musicians.  These included guitarist-turned-violinist Mike Piggott, then a member of Gass (led by Bobby Tench, they offered up a heady brew of Afro-rhythms, jazz and progressive rock. and had just released their ‘Juju’ LP with Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac guesting on a couple tracks).

Jim and Ric obviously had a lot to say musically and in contrast to the intensity of the music they’d previously been playing (guitar-dominated electric blues and hard psych-prog-rock respectively) Horace were virtually acoustic and overall have a mellow, bucolic yet experimental feel - imagine a mix of Traffic, Caravan and The Grease Band, and even a hint of Uncle Frank’s seminal Hot Rats!

‘See the sun’ (written and sung by Ric) is the most atmospheric of the three tunes and opens with Mike Piggott’s violin delicately greeting a new dawn, the sun rising as Andy Curtis’s gorgeous circular piano riff kisses the morning dew. The song gently unfolds with Jim’s elegant (but under-stated) bass-lines, Ric’s oh-so-tasteful percussion and Andy’s acoustic guitar adding layers to the gentle dynamic.  The rhythms subtly shuffle and change, the huge gaps in the music creating tension and mystery as lyrically the song appears to move from the optimism of a new day (“I can see the sun”) to an apocalyptic conclusion (“I lift up my head, there is no sun, the world is dead. I know there’s nowhere to go, so I wait for the snow”). Especially effective is the closing Crosby-like scat vocals (A Tree with no leaves?) and Mike’s violin, eerily reminiscent of John Cipolina’s trademark growling guitar vibrato. 

‘Waiting for the Moon’ (a ‘joint’ Ric/Jim collaboration) is a stoned romp, built around Jim’s funky looping bass riff and Mike’s violin fills. It’s still full of tempo changes and intricate instrumental passages (particularly Andy’s zigzag acoustic runs and Ric’s hand-drums) ending with a flourish of fabulous Lesh-style bass-lines by Jim.  The lyrics sum up the prevailing mood of the times, the quest for enlightenment which invariably begins with a roll of the sacramental spliff easing open the doors of perception and seeing what materialises: “I got nothing to do except sit here, waiting for the moon to appear. Miles away I think I can hear a wolfbane chasing a great white running deer….  So I just sit and wait here, smoking my cigarette, boy it gets me high!  All my life I’m looking for sky, all my life I’m wondering why. Everyone spits on a man who sits, and just waits for the moon”. 

After successfully laying down the two songs they’d intended, there was surplus studio time for a blast of uriosa felicitas. Starting out with a couple of riffs Mike already had, the bizarrely-named instrumental ‘Mongrel Polyop’ evolved organically, and what a treat it is.  Led by Mike’s double-tracked violin (sounding uncannily like Spencer Perskin of Texas psychedelic legends Shiva’s Headband), and underpinned by Jim’s bubbling bass patterns, Horace whip up a majestic shuffle reminiscent of Traffic’s ‘You can all join in’ with swaggering percussion from Ric and delightful cascading Nicky Hopkins-style piano fills by Andy.  No rehearsals, no safety net, the moon in its orbit, the stars aligned and a touch of alchemy never to be repeated.

Although Jim and Ric eventually obtained a publishing deal with Toby Music in January 1971 nothing materialised.  There is, however, an interesting, albeit frustrating, Horace footnote. Andy and Ric wrote a tune around this time they showed to Vincent Crane of Atomic Rooster. A few months later Ric recognised the same riff blasting out of a record-store sound-system and was horrified to learn that Crane had appropriated it for Rooster’s ‘Tomorrow Night’ single (which reached #11 in the UK chart).  The record bore the sole writing credit of ‘Crane’.

In the Spring of 1971 Ric, Jim and a young guitarist from Kingston named John Goodsall (who had been in Babylon with singer Carol Grimes) formed an ambitious acid-drenced power trio named Sandoz.  Although Ric’s involvement was short-lived (bearing no grudges he agreed to re-join Atomic Rooster when asked) Sandoz found a replacement and later cut an astonishing three-song acetate which Shagrat released on vinyl in a limited edition of 350 in 1996. 

Andy Curtis later joined his former Fruit Machine colleague Steve Gould in Rare Bird and subsequently played with various ex-Van der Graaf Generators in The Long Hello, his current activities are unknown.  After Gass split Mike Piggott joined Paul Brett Sage and later played with Bert Jansch. He is now a highly-respected jazz violinist.  Jim Mercer auditioned for May Blitz in the summer of 1971 but returned to his blues roots and has subsequently played string-bass with most of the UK’s leading exponents of the genre including a long spells with Gordon Smith and Paul Lamb & The Kingsnakes and, most recent to this writing, ex-Yardbird Top Topham. A Pete Frame style family tree is required to do justice to Ric Parnell’s post-Horace and Atomic Rooster activities including two albums with Italian prog-jazz-fusion band Nova, his most high-profile role being in the Spinal Tap mockumentary as Mick Shrimpton where he ‘spontaneously combusted’. He currently lives in Montana and is a member of the psychedelic collective ‘Donovan’s Brain’.

The Odes of Horace may have lain un-appreciated and un-read for centuries so the forty years it’s taken for these recordings to see the light of day is but a minor re-scheduling. Although Horace’s famous quote ‘Carpe diem’ is normally translated as ‘seize the day’, Latin scholars will point out that 'Carpe' translates literally as 'pluck', with particular reference to the picking of fruit.  The wonderful Radio Geronimo used to say ‘Everything ripens in its time and becomes fruit at its hour’ so come with us, step through the portals of antiquity…. Smell the freshness, feel the lushness, reap the harvest - carpe diem, baby, carpe diem!

Horatius mortuus est, vivat Horatius

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