British psychedelia was largely a starchy affair – even the shirt ruffles looked well-ironed and the LSD larks felt supervised by both a doctor on stand-by and someone armed with a fire extinguisher. You listen to the bands on the Pebbles compilations and they sound like they’re genuinely glowing beacons in the night, firing off sparks and setting off grenades in the temples of the beige. The British equivalent, the 20-volume Rubble series, are a sniggering, flock-coated custard pie in the face. They have their place but the US variety is significantly more exciting. Rubble don’t even feature July, perhaps the most shimmeringly zonked-out band operating in psych circles in late-60s Britain. As is Cherry Red’s wont, we are not treated to a simple best of but instead a six-disc collection of everything they ever recorded, plus fluff from under a settee they went near, coughs, sniffs and scribbles. This is how things should be.
July had already been through several incarnations before they settled on their plan of attack in 1968. They had gone through shifts from Shadows-esque ploddery and by-the-numbers R&B suits of The Tomcats (and for a short time, Los Tomcats, before success in Spain was brought to a screeching halt when the singer got a young girl pregnant) before the Ealing quartet of Tom Newman (guitar and vocals), Pete Cook (guitar), Chris Jackson (drums); Jon Field (flute; vocals; organ); Tony Duhig (lead guitar, organ) and Alan James (bass) set off to reinvent Sgt. Pepper.
The task was made somewhat easier when they began the recordings which would become July’s debut album in Wardour Street, in what would soon become Trident Studios. Abbey Road were at that stage having a clear-out and some of the four track equipment used by The Beatles was in turn used by July. An almost preposterous obsession with multi-tracking, looping, splicing and phasing created a sound which was knee-deep in patchouli, even though the band’s overriding influence was not psychedelic drugs but Sgt. Pepper. As it turned out, their finances being significantly less The Beatles, their techniques shine through without an overly saccharine gloss.
Rubble aside, 60s compilations have been generous to July over the years, particularly the stand-out trio of tracks on their 1968 self-titled debut – My Clown; Dandelion Seeds and The Way. These tracks have the psychedelic bingo full-house, from sitars and tabla to lyrics about concrete clouds, flying with seeds and an extreme fondness towards a toy clown, not to mention sounds rising and falling around your head, it’s enough to make you pleasantly seasick. If stereo is far too modern for your décor, be assured that disc two presents the album for your pleasure entirely in mono. No more than I would studiously assess screen ratios on a film, I won’t be comparing and contrasting. I mean, fucking hell.
Recorded, remarkably considering the complexity, over two weekends, the band emerged unimpressed with the album, at least according to Jon Field. Rushed to complete it and with a producer who ended up being little more than a bystander – even the album sleeve labels Tommy Scott as not producer but having ‘watched most attentively’. Newman also holds little fondness for either the recording or the end result, appalled his voice is sped up to ‘wanker’ levels (his own description) and that the quality of the songs is buried beneath layer upon layer of effects.
Let’s be clear, this is neither The Beatles nor the other obvious reference point, Pink Floyd. It is exactly what the blundering British music machine THOUGHT bands should sound like having vaguely heard what was going on in America and attempting to emulate the magic happening at Abbey Road. It missed the mark in some respects but in others it perfectly captures the false dreams of the 60s. That people around Britain were turning on and tuning out is balls of the highest order, and to have the conceit captured forever to hear remains utterly fascinating. The faded press release at the time does the band no favours: “a strange, appealing song”; “both sides of this disc are well worth listening to”. Given such a fizz-banger of a carrot dangled in front of them, the British public responded immediately by not buying it in their droves.
A string of gigs on the same bill as Pink Floyd, Joe Cocker and The Pretty Things didn’t help in the slightest and a post-album single, ‘Hello, Who’s There?’ replete with faux Cockney and, hang on to your hats, Pakistani accents, buried July’s career at sea with no wreaths, fanfares nor fond regards. It wasn’t until the 1990s that key band members tentatively shook hands again, buoyed, no doubt, by the knowledge that their 40-odd year old album was now selling amongst collectors for £3700. In 1995 they finally followed up their debut with a new album, the better than it has any right to be, Second of July. With good reason, it captures the zeitgeist of the first release, given it is little more than tinkering with unused July demos from pre-1968 and even some Tomcats material. The production is clearer in the sense that there is less of a swamp of sound effects and the songs have significantly more room to breathe. It’s nice to hear Friendly Man seem equally sinister, given the subject matter – “Mother says ‘stay away as far as you can’/friendly man won’t change his ways”. The 1960s – a time of peace, love and unpatrolled noncery.
Far less zonked and a little too fond of turning the volume up on their guitars, their slightly less staggered third release, Temporal Anomaly, shows that the band probably did have a point – beneath the effects of their first album lay some very pleasing songwriting – nothing groundbreaking that makes you think they could have taken the place of one of their contemporaries but certainly good enough to have warranted SOME kind of a mention back in the day. Released in 2005, it doesn’t really fit anywhere other than among the clique of ardent psych collectors who insist they bought July’s previous releases on the day of release, which is fine, it’s surely only to these odd few that it is aimed. Like men of a certain age are often tempted to do, guitars and amps are polished but are disgustingly satisfied with themselves and seem to smirk with each slightly ponderous ‘bwaaark’.
At this stage I was becoming confused with what material appeared when and even more-so, why. Disc five is Resurrection, an almost triumphantly unnecessary re-recording of disc four. Lovers of box-ticking, colouring-in and pedantry will wank themselves silly over it, whereas for myself and perhaps many others, it serves more as a trial run of what dementia must feel like. Have I heard this before? Yes. Did I like it before? I can’t remember, should I re-listen to the version it sounds extremely similar to, just to check? No. Obviously not. There are a few new tracks, just in case you thought this was getting silly.
Disc six, fucking hell, is their new album entitled the Wight album because blah blah recorded blah blah Isle of Wight blah. It’s really not bad at all, except it’s so cringe-worthy in its adoration of Pink Floyd that you fear international laws may have been breached. It has moments which are cheerful, poetic and utterly cohesive, yet regularly belly flops into pomposity, you can almost see the exaggerated hand gestures, helping you along in case you DON’T GET IT, MAAN. A 23-track double album, mind, just in case you weren’t choking on coloured feathers at this point any way. It’s honestly not that bad at all but fuck me, I’ve reviewed these six discs over the two hottest days of the year, like a buffoon. I reserve the right to downgrade everything simply because I’m sweating a lot.
For context (and just so you don’t feel sorry for them given their lack of success over the decades) Peter Cook has had a successful career developing guitars and amps, making customs and repairs for the likes of John Entwistle; Tom Newman was in-house producer and engineer of Manor Studios and encouraged youthful buck-toothed go-getter Richard Branson to found Virgin Records, which makes him a grade A cunt any day of the week. He also found time to produce Tubular Bells, itself featuring Cook and Field playing flute and other noodlings.
Buy July: The Complete Recordings here