BUDGIE: NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON A FRIEND (1973)
1) Breadfan; 2) Baby Please Don't Go; 3) You Know I'll Always Love You; 4) You Are The Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk; 5) In The Grip Of A Tyrefitter's Hand; 6) Riding My Nightmare; 7) Parents.
Smart move — replacing Rodger Bain with Roger Dean. After all, when it comes to production Budgie could very well be their own producers, but when it comes to painting your album sleeve, none of the band's members could draw worth a damn, so why not hire the hippest of the hip? The style is immediately recognizable; the only question is, will that style be superimposed on music that will be closer in sound to Yes — or to Uriah Heep?
The answer is neither. The album cover may be colorful and enigmatic (what the hell is that guy doing with that mutant eagle?), but Budgie stubbornly remain a heavy rock band above everything else — only one track on here displays extra «progressive» ambitions, and, to be honest, they are not even the kind of ambition that Black Sabbath displayed that very year, when they got Rick Wakeman to play for them a bit. To compensate for this, though, they tighten up their formula to the max: there is really no other Budgie album where they would kick ass on such a consistent, inventive, and, might I add, intelligent basis. (Yes, kicking ass can actually require inventiveness and intelligence).
Of course, I suppose that the true reason why this record is usually brought up as Budgie's finest hour is ʽBreadfanʼ — not only would that be the only Budgie song to be revived and popularized in the future (by Metallica), but it is clearly also the Budgie song, period; the one that, in Mick Jagger's own words, "makes a dead man come". Bourge's opening riff is so good that the band repeats it over and over for almost a minute before Shelley starts singing — a classic combination of speed, precision, and fury that predicts the stylistics of thrash metal a good decade before thrash metal. There's other goodies scattered around, too — like the hilarious (anti-capitalist?) lyrics with nursery rhyme elements, or the slightly creepy dark-folk acoustic bridge; but essentially it's all about the riff, and if you think the song is too abusive and repetitive, well, it's meant to be that way. It must actually be quite a chore, I suppose, to be able to play that tricky riff so many times in a row so quickly without making any mistakes — of course, with the advent of Slayer and Megadeth this all became standard practice, but I honestly don't know a single other track from 1973 that would have a riff like ʽBreadfanʼ's.
Still, the album is much more than just ʽBreadfanʼ. Their cover of ʽBaby Please Don't Goʼ, which they borrowed from Them (and the Amboy Dukes) rather than Muddy Waters (and which would later be re-borrowed by AC/DC), has the crunchiest rhythm sound of all these covers and an excellent slide guitar solo that puts Ted Nugent to shame (and I am quite a fan of Ted Nugent's guitar playing) — AC/DC would have more fun with the track, but this one's my bet if you want a stone cold dead face to go along with it. ʽYou Are The Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milkʼ could certainly live a healthier life without the silly «phased» drum solo that eats up almost two minutes, but other than that, it is still a major riff-fest, even if it is arguably the most Sabbath-derived tune here (particularly when the second, boogie-oriented, part comes along).
On Side B, you have the magnificent ʽIn The Grip Of A Tyrefitter's Handʼ, where Tony has a brilliant idea — chop the minimalistic four-chord riff in two parts and place both of them in different channels, so you get the effect of two guitars chatting with each other in point / counterpoint mode; beyond that, the instrumental breaks totally dispense with solos in favor of an extra bunch of riffs, including an oddly tuned «pseudo-Eastern» one. And then there is ʽParentsʼ, a 10-minute epic about the perils and insecurity that await you upon graduating from Dad's and Mom's care — not a particularly innovative or insightful topic, but somehow they manage to get the tragic vibe just right. I still don't know why they thought it useful to mimic a seagull squad on top of these solos, but apparently «seagulls shrieking» = «thunderstorm coming», and that's, like, a metaphor for the perils of grown life once you're ripped out of your safety net. Anyway, it's a major improvement on ʽYoung Is A Worldʼ and arguably Budgie's best attempt at a sentimental, heart-on-sleeve, and simultaneously heavy/thunderous epic.
In the end, my only gripe with the album are the acoustic links — ʽYou Know I'll Always Love Youʼ and ʽRiding My Nightmareʼ definitely overdo the soft-and-tender thing, and Shelley's falsetto actually grates on my nerves far worse than his normal «bleating» on the harder tracks: there is something very unnatural about his trying to pass for Art Garfunkel. Fortunately, that's just two short tracks that can be skipped if you find this style an irritant, too.
No unreasonable expectations, please — ʽBreadfanʼ may indeed contribute their most significant contribution to the world of heavy music, but other than that, Never Turn Your Back On A Friend is just a solid piece of work in an already well-functioning and properly explored area. But it is a solid piece of work: I mean, if a band can be complex-and-catchy (ʽBreadfanʼ) and simplistic-and-catchy (ʽIn The Grip...ʼ) on the same album, it's gotta count for something. Derivative or not, Tony had the golden touch at the time, and even made a few tentative moves to wiggle himself out from under the other Tony's shadow (even ʽIn The Grip...ʼ sounds like nothing Sabbath ever did up to that point, let alone ʽBreadfanʼ). Clearly a thumbs up here — this record is a must-hear for any hard rock fan, even those who have a natural aversion towards Roger Dean covers, because you can sometimes find a Jon Anderson hiding underneath.