BAKER GURVITZ ARMY: BAKER GURVITZ ARMY (1974)
1) Help Me; 2) Love Is; 3) Memory Lane; 4) Inside Of Me; 5) I Wanna Live Again; 6) Mad Jack; 7) 4 Phil; 8) Since Beginning.
In the late 1960s, there used to be a band called Gun in the UK, run by the creative brotherly duo of Adrian Gurvitz (guitar) and Paul Gurvitz (bass). Both were accomplished musicians, but not terribly original songwriters, dabbling in psychedelic art-pop, progressive hard-rock and whatever else there was en vogue at the time. They were young, naïve, derivative, and not quite sure about how best to dispose of their talents. They did have one hit (ʽRace With The Devilʼ, a grinning mock-evil boogie piece that may actually have been a bit of an influence on Black Sabbath, evil laughter and all), but couldn't capitalize on it, dissolved, reunited as yet another band (Three Man Army), then crashed again in a commercial stupor.
And then along came Ginger Baker, fresh from the dissolution of his five hundred and fifty seventh project (Ginger Baker's Air Force). Ginger, of course, wasn't much of a songwriter, but he was much of an «adventurer», and the ensuing brief romance between Baker and the Gurvitzes turned out to be almost surprisingly fruitful — particularly on this self-titled debut album. In a strictly mathematical sense, it was probably incorrect to label their power trio an «army», but they certainly generate enough rucus for at least a small squadron.
Essentially, the relative uniqueness of Baker Gurvitz Army comes from the clashing backgrounds. The Gurvitzes cut their teeth on blues-based «heavy art-rock», with a somewhat conventional approach to «aggression» and «beauty» in music. Ginger, on the other hand, came from a less «common-sense-oriented», so to speak, jazz background, to which he had also been adding a passion for the true African roots of jazz (he'd been living in Nigeria in the early 1970s). And the merger is lucky. On his own, Ginger couldn't have supplied the songwriting (not to mention the singing), and the Gurvitzes, without his aid, would have probably just made another Gun album — smooth, bland, and forgettable.
As it is, the record alternates between pop-rock anthems à la Grand Funk Railroad (ʽHelp Meʼ), stern, arena-flavored jazz-fusion workouts (ʽLove Isʼ), rootsy confessionals with weeping slide guitars (ʽInside Of Meʼ), orchestrated gospel sendouts (ʽI Wanna Live Againʼ), freakout jams (ʽMad Jackʼ), electric blues sendups in the style of Duane Allman (ʽ4 Philʼ), and atmospheric major key improvisations to brighten up your day (ʽSince Beginningʼ). It's not really quite as diverse as that, because all of the band members have their trademark tricks that they reproduce in all genres, but still, fairly impressive, eh?
Ginger takes the firm spotlight only twice — during a (fortunately) brief drum solo on ʽMemory Laneʼ and lengthy spoken (actually, muttered) ramblings on ʽMad Jackʼ. But his presence is just as deeply felt, and overall, more impressive everywhere else. On ʽLove Isʼ, for instance, in between all the mammoth riffs and flashy soloing, it is his polyrhythms, off-beat venturing, and unstoppable energy that breathe real life into the music. The Gurvitzes may be a little too stiff and stern at times, taking more care not to make any technical mistakes than to let in real rock'n'roll drive — Baker, on the other hand, couldn't care less about conventions, and simply flails in all directions with the same recklessness he showed in his Cream days (still sort of fresh in his memory, I guess, at such an early date). For those used to tighter, less impressionistic, but more technically complex patterns in 1970s prog drumming (think either Bill Bruford or Carl Palmer), this combination might be a fine distraction (or a sacrilege).
Not that I'm diminishing the merits of the Gurvitz brothers in any way, because they do come up with lots of cool riffs and occasionally breathtaking bits of guitar interplay. The slide melodies of ʽInside Of Meʼ, for instance, have that emotional enigma that should be embedded in the best of 'em; ʽ4 Philʼ does deserve the comparison with Duane (as derivative as those bends and vibratos are, they are delivered with honesty and inspiration); and ʽHelp Meʼ, as funny as it is, sort of predates all the best sides of Ozzy Osbourne's solo career a semi-decade before the fact (the idea came to me as I realized the similarity of the vocal parts, but really, the whole idea — cheery, melodic pop disguised as hard rock — is quite comparable).
The only track that does not manage to get off the ground is, amusingly, the one track that formally tries to — ʽI Wanna Live Againʼ is pompous soul with gospel overtones, too idealistically pretentious for a bunch of white guys to pull off convincingly and, furthermore, misplacing Ginger's talents: this is the only track on which he is just a backing player, nothing else. But I suppose they just didn't dare put out an album without a single ballad on it, and I cannot imagine Ginger making a valuable contribution to a ballad, anyway.
Overall, the album did not leave a strong trace on the scene of 1974, falling through the cracks as usual — too much of a stylistic melange to amass a strong, devoted fan base, too many fluctuations to appeal to «prog» crowds, «hard rock» crowds, or «glam» crowds in particular. But for today's retro-favoring fans of various intellectual or «intellectualized» directions of the 1970s, Baker Gurvitz Army is a must. It's professional, it's loud, it's memorable, and it features a one-of-a-kind talent combination — what's to ignore? Thumbs up, of course.