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Music Review: Living Life Backwards: The Best Of Pete Brown

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Imagine the scene.  It’s London 1969, you are poet singer Pete Brown and the band you’re in (Pete Brown And The Battered Ornaments) has a support slot on the bill of The Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park. 

That’s the good news.  The bad news is your band has just voted to fire you and will wipe your vocals off their forthcoming album. 

By his own admission in the copious sleeve notes that accompany Living Life Backwards, Pete Brown could sometimes be a right royal pain in the ass.  Best remembered as the principal lyricist for Cream and Jack Bruce’s post-Cream solo albums, this “best of” collection sheds welcome light on Brown’s alternative career as an unexpectedly credible underground rock singer with side orders of prog, jazz, and hallucinogenic words to go. 

On the evidence presented here it looks as though The Battered Ornaments (which featured Chris Spedding) did Brown a favour by giving him the push as clunkers such as the R&B footstomper, “Dark Lady” from A Meal You Can Shake Hands With In The Dark, stretch Brown’s vocals to the absolute edge of their capacity.

These are thankfully few and instead the bulk of this collection is rightly taken up with the two more convincing albums he made with Piblokto! – Things May Come And Things May Go But The Art School Dance Goes On Forever and Thousands On A Raft (both 1970).

Though Piblokto! lacked any kind of chart success in the UK (damned instead by the faint praise of being big in France), Harvest showed an almost touching loyalty in releasing a clutch of non-album singles, all collected here, including the languid ballad “Broken Magic” and its progtastic six-minute Hammond-heavy A-side, "Can’t Get Off This Planet" where Brown tries out a touch of Family’s Roger Chapmanesque strangulated warbling.

The title track from Things May Come… details the line-up of usual suspects at the eponymous Art School Dance with a lyrical bravado equaled only by its shifting musical styles that takes in Jim Mullen’s heavy blasting guitars, noodling organ, and pernickety eastern-influenced baroque interludes from the sax; a case of everything but the mind-expanding, multi-coloured kitchen sink.

The gorgeous “Station Song Platform Two”(awash with autumnal period-piece Mellotron) and the surprisingly powerful “Thousands On A Raft” (both from the album of the same name) show that given more emphasis on the music and less on partying, he could have been a contender.

Evidence of Brown’s penchant for career-blighting hedonism can be found on “High Flying Electric Bird.” Roger Bunn’s tasteful bass playing should be the central feature of this bluesy reverie. However, its integrity is fatally undermined by an ill-advised swanny whistle solo – a swanny whistle ferchrisakes!  Even making allowances for the “anything goes” ethos of the era it’s hard to know what on earth they were thinking of when they committed it to tape. 

Despite such a jaw-dropping crime against culture, taste and good sense, overall Living Life Backwards shows Brown’s left-field hairy college-rock with its larger than usual literary bent was made, as the handsomely packaged sleeve astutely suggests, “to be played loud” rather than focus on the small stuff. And sometimes that’s no bad thing.

Does it sound dated?  Of course it does. But if you’re up for an authentic fix on what was going in the second-division of rock bands groggily waking up, yawning and scratching their metaphorical balls in the first light of Britain’s post-psychedelic dawn, then look no further.

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About Sid Smith

  • anna regan

    the Swanny Whistle is a fabulous instrument. I didnt hear the solo but it could have been fantastic. Did he use it to its advantage or no? are you a musical audience?