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Music Review: Jackson Heights – The Fifth Avenue Bus Remastered Re-issue

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Our story begins way back in October 1970 when two albums, from the same family tree, were released almost simultaneously. Five Bridges appeared posthumously from The Nice and Kings Progress arrived from one of the legendary band's offshoots, Jackson Heights.

In March that year The Nice had played their last concert. Keith Emerson joined forces with Greg Lake of King Crimson and Atomic Roosters' Carl Palmer to become ELP. Meanwhile their vocalist and bass player Lee Jackson returned to Newcastle and set about forming his own band.

At the suggestion of Charisma’s Tony Stratton-Smith, the band was named Jackson Heights after the New York, Queens suburb. They toured with the likes of Van Der Graaf Generator and Lindisfarne, but commercial success eluded them and the band temporarily disbanded.

The Vertigo label still had faith and signed the re-invented band providing the outlet for a further three albums. Jackson Heights, now consisting of Jackson, guitarist John McBurnie, and the keyboards of Lawrie Wright, followed the time honoured tradition of the era and rented a remote cottage to write new material.

It clearly worked and the result was The Fifth Avenue Bus, which became their second album. It has now been dusted down, and re-released by Esoteric Recordings. It arrives with informative sleeve-notes and impressive digital re-mastering.

Half way through recording the album keyboard player Lawrie Wright left. He had been taken ill after recording one of the albums highlights, the piano solo on “Sweet Hill Tunnel.” He was replaced by Brian Chatton who had played alongside a certain Phil Collins in Flaming Youth.

The Fifth Avenue Bus cover added to the overall urban American feel by depicting the bus of the same name, destination Jackson Heights, complete with a New York Giants poster on the side. In many ways the image created by the names of both the band and album, alongside the artwork, seemed to sit at odds with the quintessentially British feel to the music within.

The band now had three vocalists and Jackson, who had been criticised, in some quarters, for his vocal contributions with The Nice, was now able to share the role throughout the new line up.

 

The democratic approach extended to the writing as well with the gifted John McBurnie taking the lion's share. These sat alongside solo contributions from both Wright, who wrote the wonderful acoustic piece “Long Time Dying,” and Jackson who came up with the lovely “Luxford.”

The Fifth Avenue Bus opens in some style with the delicate acoustic breeze of McBurnie’s “Tramp.” Next, “Dog Got Bitten” opens in all its urgent, infectious glory before “Autumn Brigade” delivers a reflective gem.

Having just returned home from seeing my elderly mother reduced to a shell where a lovely person once was, the beautiful and wise “Long Time Dying” successfully managed to leave a tear in my eye. With lines like “ain’t it funny now that one day we’ll be old,” and “there’s a reason youth is wasted on the young,” it is guaranteed to leave you staring thoughtfully into the half distance.

One of the album's most ambitious pieces “Sweet Hill Tunnel” arrives next from the shared pen of McBurnie and Jackson. Inventive construction and an arrangement akin to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, it slowly unfolds into a spacey jazz section that is simply magnificent. Sadly, the piano solo proved to be Lawrie Wright’s last contribution to the band. He certainly left on a high.

“Laughing Gear” gently lifts the spirits with a memorable chorus set around keys reminiscent of the very early Elton. A harmonising “House In The Country” and “Rent A Friend” both ensure that the mid section holds up with unfailing strength.

The Englishness of Jackson’s gently acoustic “Luxford” leads to the memorable “Pastor Roger,” another joint McBurnie and Jackson composition, which takes a barbed swing at religious hypocrisy. It is remarkable to think that McBurnie was only nineteen at the time of this album. It is clear that he was already an accomplished song writer.

Despite not making any significant headway, in an age awash with similar quality, Vertigo were happy to retain the band who, a year later, released Ragamuffin’s Fool. This is also available via Esoteric Recordings as is Bump ‘N’ Grind, their last album.

Once again I am indebted to Esoteric, part of the Cherry Red Label, for bringing this timely re-release back into my consciousness. The album is also available digitally via Lost Tunes. There is also an excellent fan site to visit for a full history of the band.

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